At its heart, Ad Astra features the story of a reserved soldier, named Roy McBride who longs to have a relationship with his father. That soldier (Brad Pitt), who is also an astronaut, rages silently underneath a veneer of aplomb. He’s constantly being evaluated by psychological testing, which never seems to catch all the pain and hurt he bottles up inside himself.
All of his psych tests for his space missions are approved, his heartbeat never goes above 80 beats-per-minute in the most stressful situations, he’s the most decorated soldier imaginable, and yet he feels the pain from his famous father leaving on a voyage 29 years ago, a heralded astronaut who apparently died while on a mission to go beyond the solar system.
So when he’s told that his father (Tommy Lee Jones) might be alive, stuck somewhere around Neptune while attempting to find signals of intelligent life, Roy agrees to try to communicate with his father. This requires Roy to go first to the Moon, which has been colonized, and then to Mars, which has as well.
This premise about a son longing for his father could work. Ad Astra, however, strives in every way to make its story unbearably annoying and boring. It is one of the worst movies of the year.
(It was a bad sign when I told the theater manager that I was seeing Ad Astra, and she looked at me with disgust on her face and asked, “are you sure that you don’t want to see Rambo: Last Blood instead?” She was right: I should’ve watched Rambo.)
Why is this movie so bad? First, it fails at heeding a number of Screenwriting 101 rules. Such as, never use a voiceover narrator who is saying exactly what can be seen on screen. There is not one word uttered by this narrator that ever needed to be said on top of the movie’s visuals. That includes a line where McBride is swimming through a dark tunnel, and the voiceover actually says “I’m in a cramped space.”
Ad Astra’s narrator should become, for future students of film, the prime example for why voiceovers usually work poorly.
Next, the premise of this movie is that a teeny-tiny ship around Neptune is leaking anti-matter particles that are causing a 900-million-mile “Surge” throughout the solar system. Basically a few of these particles threaten to destroy all human civilization everywhere, a premise that seems completely ridiculous. And hey, maybe the physics of this is actually plausible, but it never comes close to looking plausible at all.
In spite of the massive threat to civilization, this movie never bothers creating good reasons to care about Roy’s mission. Although Ad Astra tries to be about the desire for strong, basic human relationships, it never gives us much reason to invest in Roy and his father. There are no flashbacks, and not even a shot of Roy and his dad together. We therefore have no context for Roy’s relationship with his father, and we do not know why he would care to pursue him as far as he does.
Worse, Roy seems to have a wife or girlfriend—I never figured this out—played by Liv Tyler, who is so extraneous to every aspect of the story and its themes that it would’ve been more relevant for Ronald McDonald to make a cameo appearance in space. (In fact, there’s a surprise animal that appears out of nowhere in the middle of the movie, and although its appearance is completely random and unexplained, that made more sense than every time Liv Tyler’s character shows up.)
Next, the movie could be retitled Geezers in Space. Somehow, Pitt (age 56) goes into space accompanied by Donald Sutherland (age 84), to find Tommy Lee Jones (age 73). Two-thirds of the aforementioned actors were in Space Cowboys, a movie from the year 2000 where the premise was that three old astronauts would go into space for one last mission. That was nineteen years ago!
If they seemed old then, they are ancient now. I suppose that NASA’s space program is dying, but they didn’t have to make it seem so literal.
I have nothing against old men in space, but it makes absolutely no sense that Donald Sutherland’s character is sent to help Brad Pitt’s journey to Mars. That Sutherland’s character, who has no clear connection to anybody or any plot element in the movie, exits Ad Astra because he can’t continue the mission due to an irregular heartbeat is one of the more bizarre instances of a plot making fun of itself that I can recall.
I mean, of course an 84-year-old astronaut was going to have heart trouble in space! Is the movie trolling its audience with this choice?
And next, while Pitt’s character is older, he’s a juvenile at heart, unbearably so. His voiceovers utter the most teenage-boyish lines I have heard in some time. The real kicker is the final shot of the movie, in which Pitt delivers a monologue that sums up how “a real man” should act in the world. Please find it online somewhere to witness the ultimate statement of wimpiness. I could hear in my head Buddha, Seneca, Aquinas, and Nietzsche, together in unison, gut-laughing at it.
Next … well, I could keep going with my list of stupidities found in this movie, but I don’t feel the need to continue warning you that this movie will steal two hours of your life.
Here lies the main problem with this movie, though: it seems to be a psychological search for why a person should continue to live. McBride embodies this search, as he meets, at each stage of his journey, examples of the rage he feels inwardly.
But Ad Astra’s notion of human psychology is simplistic, its theology is moronic, and it guts all possible science and the philosophy-of-science discussions from a very science-fictional movie.
Ad Astra is so ponderous that it makes 2001: A Space Odyssey seem like a light-hearted comedy. It’s an old Brad Pitt sulking in the emptiness of space. It’s a depressing movie that thinks it has a couple of answers to life’s major dilemma of “why live?”, but those answers are so hollow that it really has no answers at all.
The movie might argue for why you should continue to live, but the existence of this movie is an argument against life itself.
In the search for intelligent life, Ad Astra is not a sign of it.