The dream of the stars made real, the oscillating hum of the enormous space antenna fills the radio waves as it bathes in the dawn, the hope of contact and connection having given rise to one of humanity’s greatest experiments, listening to the night in search of any faint signal which might indicate intelligence beyond the solar system, but a vastly more powerful blast of radiation causes overloads and massive damage to the antenna and the Earth below.
Initially thought to be a cosmic ray, repeated occurrences of “the surge” prove the source is closer to hand, somewhere in the vicinity of Neptune, and Major Roy McBride is asked to attend a debriefing at Space Command where he is informed that there is a belief that it might be related to the anti-matter experiments of Project Lima, the first manned expedition to the outer solar system launched twenty nine years before and believed to have been lost.
That mission led by Roy’s father Clifford McBride, he is tasked to travel in secrecy to the Moon and then to Mars to attempt to communicate with his father, to ascertain what the purpose of the radiation blasts is and to dissuade him from repetition, but with tens of thousands dead already and a threat of a chain reaction which could destroy the solar system, can he communicate with a stranger he has not seen since he was a child?
Directed by The Lost City of Z’s James Gray from a script co-written with Fringe’s Ethan Gross, Ad Astra is the latest big budget major studio science fiction epic exploring not only space but the humanity of those who inhabit it, following in the giant leaps of Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian and starring World War Z‘s Brad Pitt as Major McBride.
With Pitt also serving as one of over half a dozen producers, at this stage in his career he should know better than to indulge himself in a vanity trip to the edge of the solar system and back, yet that is exactly what Ad Astra becomes, so convinced that it is a profound meditation on duty and obligation, on loss and abandonment, that it forgets it needs to be a good film in the first place.
Pitt’s performance so reserved it seems as though he is determined to go farther than Ryan Gosling’s lunar not-acting of First Man, in addition to his immobile face he provides a superficial internal dialogue to McBride in voiceover, the inane monotone utterances confirming the emotional vacuum in which the character orbits, perhaps recalling how his thunderously dull narration killed the any attempt at wonder in Terence Malick’s cosmic documentary Voyage of Time.
An unstable amalgam of pretentious think-piece and ambitious science fiction action movie, like Moon Zero Two the Moon is presented as a wild frontier and the rover chase is genuinely exciting though adds nothing to the story, while the “dramatic” exodus from Mars and its consequences are egregiously ridiculous, and from there on out to Neptune any lingering pretence of scientific accuracy are thrown out the airlock along with any presumption that an attempt will be made to address key plot points.
Where Ad Astra undeniably does succeed is in the visuals, enhanced by the shifting moods of the soundtrack by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe, but with the supporting cast including Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘ Donald Sutherland and Preacher‘s Ruth Negga sidelined in favour of the tale of one man and his daddy issues, Robot and Frank‘s Liv Tyler literally phoning in her performance, any potential is ultimately eclipsed and never emerges from the shadow.
Ad Astra is currently on general release and also screening in IMAX