I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to judge an Okay movie against its potential to be Great (as opposed to appreciating how decent it already is), but I can’t help doing so with Ad Astra. If this were a direct-to-VOD space travel thriller featuring nobody actors and a shoestring budget, I might be more forgiving towards it as a sci-fi mediocrity. As is, the film has all the building blocks needed to achieve something great; they’re just arranged in a confoundingly dull configuration. Worse, there’s literally not one thing about its combination of vintage sci-fi pulp & faux-philosophical melodrama that Interstellar didn’t already achieve to greater success, so there’s constantly a better viewing option hanging over its head. Ad Astra never does enough to justify its own existence, much less its Major Studio budget, which makes its momentary flashes of greatness all the more frustrating.
Brad Pitt is a near-future astronaut who’s tasked to retrieve his war-hero father (Tommy Lee Jones) from the furthest reaches of our solar system, as he’s assumed to have become a radicalized domestic terrorist, attacking Earth’s power supplies from afar. If that sounds like a trashy space thriller, that’s because it kind of is. The video game style obstacles that obstruct Pitt’s path to his deranged father include Moon pirates, feral space baboons, and mutinous astronaut crews who’d rather fight to the death following company orders than do what’s obviously right. Ad Astra seemingly wants to be a fun, swashbuckling space adventure – a Flash Gordon for the late 2010s. Instead, it somehow comes across as microwaved Malick leftovers.
Through a godawful, entirely unnecessary narration track, Pitt continually steers the focus away from the B-picture Moon Wars thrills towards a shallowly introspective story about toxic masculinity. His dangerously emotionless protagonist prides himself on maintaining a calm, “manly” control over his feelings – despite the obvious heightened emotional stakes of chasing down a father who abandoned him (by the length of an entire solar system). In theory, this opens the film to some interesting themes about the emotional prisons of gender. In practice, it steals screen time away from the much more enticing trash-thriller beats that actually make the film entertaining for short bursts – replacing them with purposefully emotionless voiceover announcements like “I always wanted to become an astronaut, for the future of mankind,” and “I’ve been trained to compartmentalize. It seems to me that’s how I approach my life.” What a bore.
I very much want to like this movie, which only makes me harsher towards its faults. I’m drawn to its cosmetic near-future speculation about interplanetary commercial flights and crowded Moon Malls, as much as I am to its more somber speculation about a future where Macho Men are forced to regularly seek therapy for psych-evaluations. These touches never quite match the thrills of its video game action sequences, though, which only makes them feel like annoying distractions instead of the main drive of the text. I want to enjoy the film as a big-budget B-picture with exquisite visual compositions that far outweigh the heft of the killer space baboons & Moon Pirate conflicts they serve. Unfortunately, its function as a sub-Tree of Life stargazer frequently gets in the way of that indulgence, and I spent most of the film wishing I had just rewatched Interstellar or Aniara instead.