Ad Astra is the movie you might get if Kubrick fell asleep after wrapping on the first half hour of 2001 and the boom operator had to wing the rest of it. It’s a lot of Brad Pitt telling us how his character — unflappable and antisocial astronaut Roy McBride — is developing, strings swelling sentimentally, and characters murmuring about whether or not humanity deserves to exist. There’s certainly nothing new on display, and while originality isn’t an absolute necessity for art it’s hard not to zone out during McBride’s wordless flashbacks of life with his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) who left him due to his neglectful, antisocial temperament. It’s about as deep as any other dead/absent wife material. She exists so that McBride has someone to go back to.
In terms of structure, Gray’s movie owes its basic shape to Danny Boyle’s 2007 space slasher Sunshine. Though where Boyle’s film relies on its characters to texture its themes of human insignificance in the face of space’s monumental vastness Ad Astra opts instead to communicate its ideas through voiceover and pre-recorded video. The overall effect is flattening, the lack of interaction between the film’s handful of minimally-sketched characters sucking the life out of its meditation on belonging and isolation. The choice to ignore human interaction is especially tiresome given the film’s 124-minute running time, which by the fifth scene in which Brad Pitt calmly navigates a zero-gravity problem feels more like three hours.
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The film’s visual language, a lot of blank white walls and blandly futuristic military installations, is in step with its impersonal tone but largely eschews any kind of personal element in its sets and starfield panoramos. When it does introduce personal touches, the results are deeply baffling — like the empty birdcage and porcelain doll which are the sole ornaments in director Helen Lantos’ (Ruth Negga) private quarters. It’s like Gray saw Solaris and 2001 and understood that putting stark objects on blank fields can be powerful but his comprehension of why never fully gelled. Even so far as it’s in keeping with Pitt’s mildly misanthropic voiceover, the film’s visual blandness misses the mark hit by Mary Harron’s American Psycho in which the sterile emptiness of Patrick Bateman’s apartment, favorite watering holes, and workplace reflect the condition of his vacuous soul.
It’s a bold move for a film in which the protagonist murders the crew of a rocket ship solely so that he can perform their mission in their place and get a chance to talk to his dad to end with a ringing endorsement of human connection, but that’s what Ad Astra shoots for. The film’s winking title and trite message that all the connection and wonder we need resides right on Earth in our loved ones and in ourselves might go over better if it included anything suggesting that were true. Instead we get two hours of a grown man figuring out that having feelings can be good for you.