Directed by James Gray, AD ASTRA (2019) is a visually interesting film aspiring to far more pathos than it earns. I liked it, though its blatant allusions to APOCALYPSE NOW and the discordance between the space journey and the simple message made it feel a little empty.
In the latest Twenty-first Century, the solar system is colonized up to Mars. Human installations are beginning to be struck by mysterious power surges that ultimately threaten civilization and possibly all human life. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt being Brad Pitt and as usual great to look at), son of astronaut H. Clifford McBride (the great Tommy Lee Jones), who is believed dead, is called into a meeting with space brass. They tell Roy that his father is alive and that his Lima Project–exploration past Neptune to search for extraterrestrial life–is the source of the power surges. His mission is to travel to Mars and try to reach his father, though he finds himself going much farther.
Similarly to APOCALYPSE NOW, the film appears based on Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS, though it bears far more similarities with the movie than the novel. If you know that classic war film, you’ll recognize many of its elements in AD ASTRA. The plot rolls out in a similarly episodic fashion, with Roy surviving violent encounters on the Moon, on the way to Mars, and on Mars itself. Along the way, he narrates an internal monologue about his relationship with his father and that he’s afraid of what he’ll find. His father is set up as a larger than life figure whose singled-minded pursuit of fulfilling his mission turned him utterly ruthless and possibly mad.
AD ASTRA has a nice literary feel to it, a simple message that there is much to discover among humanity right here at home, visually stunning landscapes, some terrific action sequences, and great casting. Overall, it has a really cool feel to it, a moody atmosphere. The problem is it simply doesn’t tie together and the parts don’t sum up to earn the gravitas claimed for the whole. Nothing about the violent episodes Roy survives changes or prepares him for finding his father. They serve no thematic purpose, no purpose at all, in fact, other than to produce action scenes and eat up runtime. The descent into the “heart of darkness” is supposed to be about gradually stripping away moral convention to discover the violent human animal, but this isn’t that story. Otherwise, the characters are mostly coldly detached, which creates an emotional distance with the viewer; that serves the theme, but without the plot and theme jiving, it only bogs the story down.
Overall? I liked AD ASTRA a lot. Good, though it could have been fantastic, an instant sci-fi classic, if it had the right story to justify its pretensions. Overall, AD ASTRA certainly reached for the stars. Though it failed in that for me, it settled for the moon.