I’ve been asked recently why I don’t prefer movies with heavy symbolism and lots of messages between the lines, and my answer was that I don’t necessarily have a problem with things happening between the lines as long as there are other things happening on top of the lines. Ad Astra came to me as a challenge to my own theory. It is a film with a philosophical topic and message packed with symbolism presented between the lines, and over its lines we do have a multi-chaptered adventure filled with an extremely impressive utilisation of cinematic tools. Yet I still can’t say that I necessarily liked it. I spent most of my time since I’ve seen the film trying to find an explanation, and I think I have it.
Ad Astra tells the story of a space adventure set in the near future. Astronaut Roy McBride is tasked with traveling to Neptune in order to communicate with his father. His father, Clifford McBride himself was tasked with exploring the possibility of intelligent life far into the solar system 30 years ago, but nothing was heard from his station in 16 years and he was presumed dead, until life threatening power surges start hitting the earth and were traced back to the “Lima Project” .. Roy’s father project. The journey is long and filled with dangers as well as self explorations from Roy.
There are two key problems with the film in my opinion. First, the lack of direct connection between the stages of our adventure and what we should conclude from them and second how incredibly slow the entire movie is. It’s not subtle, it’s not calm, it’s not serene .. it’s simply slow. Slow to the extent that I fought sleep .. several times. It really baffled me how a film containing chases, fights, attacks and breathless struggles for survival can possibly be described as slow, but it is, and not just around those moments .. actually through them. You know the chase scene from the trailer with the two space vehicles firing at one another? I almost slept through that!!
Ad Astra is a mildly complicated film and a very complicated condition. I can say that I understand it & it doesn’t take much thinking to do so. The philosophy is clear and the message is directly spoken. I’m obligated by my own claim of honesty to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Yet I can never deny the so many things that I truly admired. There are multiple factors that ought to help this film stand out in the middle of all of the space films. Director and co-writer James Gray managed to pull what was almost deemed impossible; Find fresh ideas to present into space. How would a commercial flight to the moon look like in a serious sense? If technology is always driven by military research and targets luxury once publicized, how can that merge into the real world of space? Would you like to learn how to sneak into a ride to a different planet? This film shows you how, and it’s all presented in an astonishing visual experience. So crisp and so realistic and also so artistic in the selection of set design and colouring.
Thankfully we have all the time in the world to admire the visual experience because of how, unfortunately, slow everything moves. Of course I understand how the pace helps in serving two purposes; First, to reflect the surround of space where everything, even if deadly, moves slow, and second, to put us in the state of mind of our hero who’s embracing, and suffering from loneliness. However, it does hinder the adventure layer very badly. I rarely ever felt thrilled in any situation the film offered, with the exception of the very first perhaps. The thing that kept me excited about the sequence of events is a journey of our hero and that was because of the authenticity of the experience and the magic of the visual experience like I said, and before them of course comes the performance of Brad Pitt. It’s one of the rarest occasions where I really see him working outside of his comfort zone. Playing an introvert character with so little speech and so little emotions on the surface. Yet completely successful in connecting the viewer to the feelings of his character with the slightest of expressions. One of his best performances for sure but I would say it’s not the kind preferred by the academy.
Ad Astra is a significant film, an original film, a smart film, an impressive film. Look, I’ll surrender to any positive label that can come to mind, except enjoyable. The film chose to stay true to its surround and set the priority of his character exploration above the actual cinematic experience, and in that it failed to be another Blade Runner 2049. It also declined to commit to the artistic classification and forced various adventurous scenarios that didn’t always connect with its philosophy, and in that it failed to be another 2001: A Space Odyssey .. by a long distance .. and I’m not even a big fan.