Exberliner are on the Lido for the 76th Venice Film Festival, and one of this year’s hot tickets is Ad Astra, James Gray (The Lost City Of Z)’s space odyssey starring Brad Pitt. Released in a few weeks on German screens, let’s find out whether it’s worth a whole trip to the outer solar system. Here’s our first look review…
Ground control to Major Brad… Written and directed by James Gray, Ad Astra is one of the most buzz-worthy titles of this year’s festival and, in part due to lofty expectations, it’s possibly the biggest let-down in the Competition section thus far. The general consensus clashes almost violently with mine, as many have praised it as an outright masterpiece, with five-star reviews popping up left, right and centre. The disappointing truth, however, is that you won’t have to scratch the film’s astonishingly beautiful surface too hard to uncover Ad Astra’s conventional and rather hollow core.
Set in the near future, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent to Mars to record a message for his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). The latter, a venerated space pioneer, went off-grid near Neptune whilst on a mission to find artificial intelligence in the universe. McBride Sr.’s reputation is at risk of being tarnished, as he is suspected of having a bad case of the Kurtz and being the origin of several electric surges that threaten life on Earth.
In a statement that could in no earthly way raise expectations into the stratosphere, Gray stated that he wanted to make “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.” Whether he fully succeeds is up for debate, as the depiction of the privatisation of space travel is intriguing – if you thought Ryanair were taking the piss, just you wait until you have to shell out $125 for a pillow and a blanket on a commercial flight to the moon.
Positives first… There’s absolutely no denying the fact that Ad Astra is a veritable feast for the senses. From an awe-inspiring, Gravity-indebted opening to the evocative umbilical tether in the film’s final act, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s immaculate cinematography never faulters. Paired with Kevin Thompson’s wonderous set design, showcasing a retro aesthetic that favours industrial corridors and recording rooms evocatively bathed in rusty oranges and vermilion lighting, the film’s visuals are glorious.
The film as a whole is clearly beholden to the Tarkovskian and Kubrickian sci-fi classics that have preceded it, and also magpies from more recent films like Insterstellar and First Man. While there is a case to be made that after so many recently released space films, the bar has been raised in terms of expectations and comparisons become unavoidable, the sum of Ad Astra’s familiar parts still don’t coalesce into something that’s out of this world. What truly makes it crash to earth with a loud thump is its flaccid script. Stunning visuals and Max Richter’s sumptuous score aside, all the film does is beg the question: Do we need yet another space movie about a gifted but emotionally stunted male protagonist who is crippled with familial issues? Especially one with a recurring voiceover that oscillates between the barely poetic and the mind-numbingly literal? Indeed, remove its bathetic joys entirely and the film already feels more intriguing.
“What happened to my dad? What did he find out there? Did it break him? Or was he always broken?”
Save the incessant questioning regarding your rampant daddy issues for tonight’s diary entry, Brad, and get that powerful jaw of yours to Neptune already. As for you, Mr. Gray, leave the cliché-laden philosophising to the undergrads and stop egging on Terrence Malick to cringe so hard his spleen might rupture into a million little fleshy pieces.
It’s a real shame, as there was so much potential within the fabric of its Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now-echoing set up to weave a chillingly meditative tale about how we are inevitably destined to stare into the Lovecraftian void of space, only to realise that the limits of mankind’s grasp can only lead to the realisation that we may be all we’ve got. Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross do ambitiously aim for the moodily introspective but ultimately, all we get are surface-level existential musings that distinctly lack poignancy. The themes are glossed over in the same way the director rushes from episodic sequence to the next, ultimately leading to the numbing realisation that in space, no one can hear you care.