Cinema Dispatch: Ad Astra

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Ad Astra and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directed by James Gray

We already sent Matt Damon into space and couldn’t get rid of him, so I guess its Brad Pitt’s turn on the intergalactic chopping block.  Space movies, especially ones that try to reflect our current understanding of outer space and an approximation of our current technology have been a great way to explore our own humanity as well as the stars themselves with 2001: A Space Odyssey still being the gold standard that these kinds of films try to aspire to.  Does this newest sci-fi drama about Brad Pitt IN SPACE prove to be a worthy contemporary of the genre, or will the only favorable comparisons be to Plan 9 From Outer Space?  Let’s find out!!

Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in the near future where that’s back to being a viable career and NASA has morphed into the SpaceCom which has put bases on the moon, on Mars, and they even sent a space ship out to Neptune to look for life beyond what they can see back on Earth.  That space ship was part of the “Lima Project” which was launched sixteen years ago with Roy’s dad Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) and hasn’t been heard from in years and is presumed lost forever.  That is until weird electrical pulses start to reach Earth that knock out power in a lot of places and even causes a giant space antenna to come crashing down that Roy just so happened to be working on at the time, and SpaceCom thinks that it might be the… super science generator (something to do with dark matter maybe?) that they stuck on Clifford’s ship all those years ago.  On the off chance that this is the case, they want Roy to get his butt to Mars and use their super science broadcasting antenna (basically pirate radio IN SPACE) to get a message out to Neptune and hopefully to his dad.  Things get complicated right away however as there seems to be more going on than SpaceCom is telling him, and on top of that he’s got some unresolved issues with the old man, what with him leaving his family to never return, that may or may not complicate things even if they DO get a message to him.  Will Roy come to terms with the decisions his father made as well as finally get the closure he’s looking for?  What challenges will he face and what secrets will he uncover during the rather long voyage from Earth to Mars?  How do you pack for kind of trip anyway?  A lot of protein bars I guess?

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“Really wish we could find a Starbucks out here.”

I feel like I should tread carefully here as I’ve certainly had contentious opinions on sci-fi films that plenty of other people enjoyed quite a bit, and I’d like to make sure I’m doing best in getting across my no doubt BRILLIANT analysis of this motion picture.  In summation… there should have been way more moon pirates.  THE END!  Okay fine, I have a BIT more to say about the movie, but the scant amount of Moon Pirates in a film where that’s apparently a thing is a good approximation of the film’s primary failing.  The narrative tries for big ideas and strong emotional resonance, but it all feels rather middling, which is made worse by everything AROUND the narrative being far more interesting.  This is one of the few movies I can think of where missing the forest for the tress would have actually been GOOD advice as the world building, the special effects, and the out of nowhere set pieces like the aforementioned MOON PIRATES are what kept the film going for me; certainly more so than Brad Pitt’s daddy issues or the boiler plate commentary on capitalism and bureaucracy.  Just to make sure, it HAS sunk in by now that this movie has MOON PIRATES, right?  Well in case it hasn’t, THIS MOVIE HAS MOON PIRATES!!

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“We’re pirates on the moon!”     “We drive on these space dunes!”     “We will take your gold and we’ll break your bones and sing our jaunty tune!”

It’s certainly intriguing at first with a really cool set piece that could have been the finale in any other space movie, but it doesn’t take long for the narrative to start taking the reins and lead us down a far less interesting direction.  Brad Pitt is certainly trying here as it’s practically a one man show, but I just don’t think the writing is strong enough to convey the emotional weight of his struggle for most of the movie.  One of the problems might be the absolute stoicism with which he approaches each new challenge and revelation which was DEFINITLEY a conscious decision of the film makers (they literally point this out at the beginning of the movie just so we don’t get confused), but deliberate or not it ultimately means I lacked any real sympathy for the guy who’s problem was already sounding kind of boiler plate.  Look, popular entertainment (ESPECIALLY video games for some reason) has been obsessed with daddy issues and I don’t think this movie does anything particularly interesting with that dynamic; especially since we don’t know ANYTHING about his dad until the final act.  To a certain extent I do see value in keeping him a mystery, both for intrigue and to make him more of a universal entity than just one specific dude, but the film has so little going on around that that isn’t entirely mechanical or somewhat obnoxious that there’s just not enough there to carry the whole movie.  Even if you strip away everything daddy related in his narration, Brad Pitt just comes off like an obnoxious and boring dude, especially with his grade school critique of capitalism because I guess having a subway on the moon base is trivializing the majesty of its accomplishment; a point by the way made twenty years ago and made better by Futurama.  The one part of the story (at least the consistent parts of it) that works for the first half of the movie is the paranoia aspect where you’re never quite sure if Space Command is watching him and testing him, so every interaction he has with another person or even just moment he has to himself carry this sense of looming danger that did a great job of making the less interesting parts of the movie still somewhat engaging.

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“It always feels like somebody’s watching me.”     “What!?  You think our government is spying on us!?  That’s just silly!”     “Yeah I guess you’re right-”     “Wait, can you say that again but closer to the microphone?”

What ultimately carries this movie for most of its running time is the spectacle which is top notch and stunning to a degree that few movies have been able to achieve.  In fact, while the comparisons to 2001 aren’t the MOST favorable since Hal is about 9000 times more compelling than Brad Pitt, this is probably the closest any movie since than has capture the awe inspiring scale of space travel.  We’ve definitely seen other movies masterful capture space as a setting and some of them have inspired a certain degree of awe (the light speed jump in The Last Jedi comes to mind), but not a lot of those movies can consistently capture that since of both beauty AND terror that comes with discovering something no one has seen before; the vast emptiness of space that is lonely and hostile but also full of secrets waiting to be uncovered.   Secrets like MOON PIRATES, which by the way means it’s time we ACTUALLY talk about that.  The set pieces (yes, the MOON PIRATES isn’t the only one) are mostly isolated sequences in the movie which are fun to watch and have affect the plot in certain ways, but are ultimately a secondary aspect of this movie.  One of which is Brad Pitt simply going from one moon base to another which has a rocket waiting that will take him to Mars.  Simple enough you’d think as a moon rover ride to another base sounds rather trivial, but somehow there are OTHER groups of people on moon with their own rovers and LASER GUNS who attack them to get… whatever it is they think they have on their little buggy.  It’s a scene that on its own is pretty spectacular and unlike anything I’ve seen since MAYBE Moonraker, but it feels like a small snapshot of a much more interesting movie than the one we’re watching right now.  Who are these moon pirates!?  Where do they live!?  HOW do they live!?  What possible conditions have made it so that this group have the resources for space suits, laser guns, and space cars, but still have to live a life of old school cowboy outlaws!?  Couldn’t they just use super wi-fi to hack people’s bank accounts back on Earth!?  There are plenty of movies that follow a specific character throughout a chaotic journey as they visit one extraordinary situation before moving on to the next one (you’re basically describing a road trip movie that point), but the key is for the out there scenarios to work WITH the primary narrative rather than distract or even overshadow it; and unfortunately I found this one landed in the latter camp for the most part.

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“WHY DID WE FILL IT WITH FIREWORKS!?”

Now despite this movie feeling like the writer and second unit director weren’t talking to each other for the first two thirds, they do end up patching things up by the third act which does a much better job of intertwining the spectacle with the central narrative.  The movie starts to pay off a lot of the character work it had been building up to that point, and some of it comes to interesting conclusions that work well with the setting and the accompanying spectacle.  To compare it to 2001 again, it’s almost like they took that initial half hour of set up before Bowman and Poole board the ship and expended it for almost two hours here.  It ends up doing its job well enough as a good chunk of it does pay off, but it feels like far too much build up for what is still something of a straightforward story with a somewhat predictable ending; not that I saw EXACTLY where it was going, but when it did happen I wasn’t all that surprised.  It’s odd because some of the best scenes in the first two thirds of this movie are the ones you could most easily cut which would make for a much brisker experience, but I’m also glad that they DIDN’T cut them out since I don’t really want to live in a world where MOON PIRATES aren’t a thing we can now watch in state of the art movie magic.

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In space, no one can hear you endlessly ramble.  Then again, you can still hear me complain about it.

I guess what it comes down to is that the pomp and circumstance with which it’s made sets the wrong expectations for what is ultimately a much quitter movie.  You can certainly make a thoughtful action movie or a summer blockbuster with compelling characters (Marvel’s known that for at least a decade now), but it feels like the filmmakers were worried their film wouldn’t succeed without spectacle and were resentful of that fact so they isolated from the narrative as much as possible with random set pieces that hint at a bigger and more fascinating world, but one we only get to experience in fits and spurts.  Do I recommend seeing it?  Well those fits and spurts of excitement ARE pretty great and the pure spectacle of the thing does a good job of distracting from Brad Pitt’s wet blanket narration, but it’s also overly long and ends up dragging for significant stretches.  If you’ve got two hours to kill and your tolerance for daddy issues is slightly above average, then you’ll probably get something out of this movie that’ll justify the price of a ticket.  I think I ultimately did even if it just BARELY passed that threshold, but if you’ve got a nice enough set up at home you may get enough of that WOW factor that way while still being able to tune out the boring parts.  And hey, if this DOES well we might get a sequel that ACTUALLY spends more than five minutes on the MOON PIRATES!  It’d be like First Blood Part II, only instead of replacing biting critiques of post war America with jingoistic excess, we’re replacing LACK OF MOON PIRATES with ALL OF THE MOON PIRATES!!

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