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First of all, this movie suffers from an overapplication of Show, Don't Tell. It doesn't tell you anything. It makes reviewing a little hard because I just watched it and have no clue why anybody did anything. Apparently, there are "power surges" coming from Neptune, though why is not explained (to the best of my knowledge). Brad Pitt (I kept forgetting the character's name - is it Ray or Roy?) has to go on a long journey through the solar system that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, both scientifically and within the plot. Each stage brings us a bunch of new characters who then promptly disappear or are killed off. In fact, there aren't even any real dialogues in the entire movie. What seems like a dialogue is just two monologues happening at once.
The Show part is missing, too. The film is praised for its beautiful shots of space, but there aren't any. Most of the time it is bleak and dark. The rest takes place inside various space vessels. There's a lot of action, but it takes place randomly (every docking is an opportunity for things to ram into each other and shake).
I heard it described as a "hard sci-fi", but to use such a term for a movie that doesn't even bother with gravity (normal on Mars, weightlessness in a spaceship with engines on) does not deserve such a title.
I'm sure there is a message. It might be against consumer culture, or against humanity at large. Or there might be a message "Never Give Up". It depends on which part you consider. Either way, it's more of an afterthought and isn't reflected in the plot.
Speaking of the plot... If you cut out all BigLippedAlligatorMoments and deep monologues, you're left with a journey there and back. I guess the world is saved. But why would it matter if we're never shown the world?
I showed up thirty minutes late for this picture, so probably take what I have to say with a little grain of salt? But, I didn't feel confused and was able to figure out what was going on for most of it.
Ad Astra is primarily a character drama masquerading as a special-effects driven space film. While the special effects, and the direction and photography around them, are indeed very beautiful, it is first and foremost about the protagonist, Roy Mc Bride, and his difficult and complex relationship with his father, Clifford, the greatest astronaut in history, and also an emotionally-distant jackass who abandoned his family for most of Roy's life.
Oh, there are some dramatic action scenes. Shootouts with space pirates on the moon. Exploration of dangerous, seemingly-abandoned space stations. Dangerous, tense accidents in space. But, the focus of the movie is soundly on Roy's character. On his tight emotional control, so necessary in the dangerous frontier where he works, and how it's damaged his ability to form relationships. How he both admires and kind of hates his dad, and also how afraid he is of hurting others just as his dad hurt him. And on how he reacts when he finds out just what his dad's been up to while they were separated.
The plot is fairly threadbare, to that end. More of a road-trip than a coherent set of events. Almost none of the action scenes are really necessary for anything but shooting a bit of adrenaline into the film, and the major exception is both tragic and kind of unintentionally hilarious, though it's spoiler-tastic so I won't dwell on that. Point being, this is a movie about the people, not the plot.
In short, this entire film would fall apart if the central performance wasn't not only rock solid, but incredible, and, happily, it is. Brad Pitt proves, if anyone needs reminding, that he's an incredible character actor trapped in a leading man's body, and between his physical acting and the best use of voiceover since A Christmas Story, he absolutely murders a role that, in lesser hands, could've come across as wooden, dull, or bored. We see not only the disciplined will and steely nerves of the master astronaut, but the humanity underneath, the emotion and capacity for compassion that distinguishes him from his father in little flashes of grief or anger. This fierce humanity distinguishes it from sterile, dull films like 2001, which are all brain and mind-blowing special effects, but populated by cardboard cut-outs.
That said, the other pillar this film rests on is its absolutely gorgeous camerawork and cinematography. Often shot at eye-level for the character, or over-the-shoulder, it creates an incredible sense of atmosphere, capturing that sense of simultaneous awe/agoraphobia of the huge, impossible vastness of space, and the cramped coziness/claustrophobia of the tight little metal capsules we seal ourselves in to traverse it. Speaking as someone who complains when films come to a screeching halt just to show off (How to Train Your Dragon-itis, I believe I called it on another review here), I was impressed with this one.
Should you see it? I don't know. I liked it, but I also like space, and connected very deeply with the themes. If you just want a turn-your-brain-off action spectacle, probably not. And I've heard that lots of individual bits of the space stuff are unrealistic, so if that's a pet-peeve, probably not that either. Lord knows, I've been turned off by movies I knew too much about science to enjoy, though that didn't happen while I was watching it. It's only now, for instance, I realize that using the planets he's flying by as a visual cue doesn't make sense considering the incredible distances involved.
But, if you want a beautiful character drama in space, and you don't mind the intense action being relatively spread apart, give it a chance. This one's going to be great in theaters.
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