James Gray’s Ad Astra doesn’t shy away from being a knock-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apocalypse Now and the theatrical cut of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is tasked to find his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) in the reaches of space, as he may be linked with an electrical surge threatening the future of human life.à
The plot is rather simple, and the opening scene incredibly visceral (a movie that demands to be seen in IMAX to do the sumptuous 35mm photography by Hoyte van Hoytema justice). Obviously, James Gray is a gifted visual artist, and it’s no surprise, because his last film, The Lost City of Z, had some of the most visceral and exciting action setpieces of 2017. The opening scene in which Roy succombs to “The Surge” and tries to activate his parachute is gripping and some of the best action I’ve seen this year. I was completely hooked and dizzied by Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful cinematography (that deserves an Oscar) and the film’s fantastic sound design made me literally say “Wow”. That “wow” was short-lived, however, because, soon after, voice-over kicks in from Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride and I immidiately said “uh-oh”. It was either going to work, like Martin Sheen’s Willard in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or it wasn’t going to work — like the infamous voice-over in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner.
The voice-over, which composes most of Brad Pitt’s “comandeering” performance (if you will) made the movie look and sound terribly pretentious, a word I rarely use when I describe a movie, only in rare occasions where I can feel the director’s self-indulgent ego permeating the entire film to showcase how “amazing” he/she is by showing us how cool his/her filmmaking techniques are. The prime example of that is Xavier Dolan, a director who makes films that are visually amazing and acclaimed in the international scene, but his film lack any storytelling substance whatsoever, because he’s too busy bamboozling us with his “pretty visuals” to forget how weak of a writer he is. Here, James Gray decides to make an unhinghed Terrence Malick picture (à la Song to Song or, even worse, Knight of Cups), in which the editing complements the voice-over, the voice-over complements the visuals, and the voice-over dictates what Brad Pitt feels and observes just feels overly pretentious and self-indulgent. I can imagine the movie working WITHOUT the voice-over. Yes, the movie is a slow-burn (I don’t mind that), but what makes the movie slower than the initial slow-burn is that stupid voice-over. I would love to reedit the movie without the voice-over and see the result.
Every single word Brad Pitt utters in that voice-over (you can say ASMR) made me sleepy, to the point where I could barely keep my eyes open and wanted to pause the movie (obviously I can’t in a theater) and tried to find a source of entertainment to make me distracted from the movie. It’s a real feat to make me sleepy and distracted in an IMAX theater, where the humongous screen fills your entire field of vision to the point where you’re almost forced to watch the movie, but I couldn’t do it. Gray’s movie reminded me of Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, a profundly boring and laughably horrible sci-fi mumbo-jumbo movie. Gray is a pretentious-man’s Apocalypse Now, almost following the same structure as Coppola’s film and basing himself (like Coppola did) on J. Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness. The film’s briefing sequence on Roy’s mission (with a wild cameo from John Ortiz) is brilliant, harkening back to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The voice-over (though quite pretentious) is similar to Apocalypse Now in a way that it showcases what Roy feels about the mission, similar to what Willard felt about Kurtz in Coppola’s film. There are many stops, new characters that Roy meets, action sequences that puts the mission in peril, yet, something’s missing. It’s cool, I guess, to rip-off Apocalypse Now and/or Hearts of Darkness and put it in a spatial setting (the Moon Rover setpiece is absolutely enthralling), but something’s missing, and that something is the attachement to the protagonist.
Yes, Brad Pitt’s performance is great (Brad Pitt can do no wrong), but his character is so brutally underdeveloped and one-dimensional that I honestly couldn’t give two shits about his so-called “daddy issues”. When it is revealed that H. Clifford killed everyone who was part of the Lima Project and that he will no longer be part of the mission to retreive him, it’s supposed to be an extremely powerful scene in which you feel for the guy who hopes to see his father again. But you don’t feel an ounce of emotion, as his character traits aren’t properly progressed and introduced. Facial expressions convey everything, and it’s something that author Béla Balázs completely understood in “L’esprit du cinéma” in which he explains that the micro-change of a facial expression can change the entire course of the movie and convey everything you need to know about the character. Ad Astra doesn’t need a pretentiously written voice-over to explain the character (good lord, the voice-over reminded me of the parody of the pretentious voice-overs in Mr. Bean’s Holiday when Carson Clay’s Playback Time premieres at Cannes), it has an amazing facial actor who can literally convey every single feeling in his facial expressions (the movie’s got four fantastic expressionnist performers: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, whom, minus Pitt, are wholly underused). WE DON’T NEED A VOICE-OVER! I’m sure I’ll get many filmbros come at me and trying to explain to me that “the voice-over explains the nascent steps of Roy McBride’s journey into uncharted space, while at the same time transcendentally meditating on his own life, and inner struggles. We see a man full of ennui, but the narration and Pitt’s maestoso of a performance make the film profundly pleasing and, a posteriori, describing cinema itself and life everlasting.”
I don’t need your word salad thesaurus, as my opinion won’t change. The ending is a true slap-in-the-face to the ones that were “emotionally wrecked” by this movie. To them I say, “wake up!” The ending is laughably horrible, and awfully performed by Tommy Lee Jones who plays a discount version of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (instead of a colonel gone mad, an astronaut gone mad!). I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say it reminded me of the always corny sequence from James Cameron’s Titanic : “Never let me go, Jack!” There are many instances of unintentional laughter, the random space monkey or one action sequence that takes place inside a spaceship that has, in my opinion, the most unintentionally hilarious side-character death of the year. I couldn’t take Ad Astra seriously. Yes, the visuals are stunning (there are some amazing practical effects), the action sequences (most of them) are visceral, Brad Pitt is fantastic, Max Richter’s score is sublime alongside Hoytema’s best work as DP yet. However, the supporting cast is almost non-existent filled with uninterestingly boring characters in the form of living legend Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga and whatever Liv Tyler was doing for two and a half minutes. James Gray feels lost in his owen self-indulgence and tries way too hard to crave attention, instead of making an enlightening sci-fi epic in the vein of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wasn’t impressed. I may be in the minority (which surprises me), but I don’t give a rat’s ass. Obviously, you should see it as I believe it will spark numerous discussions.