With echoes of "2001: A Space Odyssey" layered over an outer space "Apocalypse Now", AD ASTRA is an intriguing but ever so leisurely personal discovery mission.
Brad Pitt continues one of the best acting years of his long career as Astronaut Roy McBride. In stark contrast to his hilarious, explosive Cliff Booth in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood", McBride is a man of reserve and inner conflict.
The film opens with a spectacular sequence in which McBride survives a disaster in Earth's orbit. Plummeting to ground from space heights when a giant energy pulse hits his orbiting space station/antenna array, McBride's pulse never rises above a casual pace.
He's called into a top level meeting and told that the massive energy surges appear to be emanating from near Neptune, which also happens to be the last known location of a space expedition led by his legendary father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).
Roy's mission is to travel to the Moon and then Mars, where he will send his Father a message trying to stop him from what appears to be a purposeful attack on our solar system.
Roy departs on his first leg to the Moon, just as Heywood Floyd did in Kubrick's 2001.
The special effects are first rate and beautiful. Space is depicted sound free, except for the near constant, haunting music score by Max Richter. Richter's orchestral store lurks in the background for nearly the full 124 minute running time. It's clean, effective and at times mysterious.
I loved the unique depiction of the moon, turned into a basic mall with everything from a Hudson News to fast food joints, but the surface is littered with rogue international pirates, ready to kill you for your goods.
There's a great action scene with the space pirates that offers up jaw dropping examples of the impact of low gravity on a car chase. It's one of the best sequences in the movie.
Roy is soon on the way to Mars and beyond.
In "Apocalypse Now" Martin Sheen's intelligent voice-over narration described the impact of the jungles and rivers of Vietnam, detailing how their mission to find Brando's Coronel Kurtz affected him and all the characters around him.
It's telling that Pitt's McBride narrates from beginning to end, mostly about the mission's impact on him, his feelings, and his personal relationship with his father.
You can interpret much bigger messages about man's constant search for a higher message or a creator, father/son relationships, culturally expired attitudes about masculinity and being in touch with emotions, but much of these layers lay in space waited to be interpreted through your own personal filters.
It's very smart but emotionally hollow.
In Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" he surrounded Sheen's Captain Willard with a dazzling array of characters throughout the journey, from Duvall's Colonel "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" Kilgore to Dennis Hopper's crazy photojournalist.
AD ASTRA's supporting characters are cardboard players that only serve to move Roy to the next episodic chapter of his voyage. Ruth Negga (Preacher) comes off best as a Moon Commander, alongside Donald Sutherland as a former friend of Roy's father.
The finale, which I wont describe here, is interesting, but didnt carry any emotional impact for me as a viewer. It should have, but it didn't.
Writer/Director James Gray's last film "The Lost City of Z" left me feeling the same way. It also detailed a man's journey deep into the jungle and himself. It was beautiful to look at, never boring but very slow. I liked it, but I never need to see it again.
The same could be said for AD ASTRA.
It sounds incredible (especially in the AMC Dolby Theatre we saw it in, a WOW for the ears) and is visually beautiful. The Neptune, Moon and Mars scenes are stunning.
My ears and eyes were dazzled, but by heart never went on the mission.
In that thrilling opening sequence, Roy's pulse never rose above 85. Other than that brief sequence on the disabled ship boarded after an SOS, neither did mine. For all on display here, that seems like a shame.
I'm not sure I needed to go a 6 billion miles for the lesson learned. I'll give AD ASTRA a B-.