This US-China co-production is a long, effects-heavy space adventure film with participation by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B and both a starring role and a production role for Pitt. There are 17 producers, co-producers and executive producers listed on the credits, including the director James Gray. That tells you quite a lot. In fact, questions about production and distribution are probably more interesting than the film itself unless you are a Brad Pitt fan (and even then I think your attention levels might drop). The film is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox in the UK and was originally a Fox Searchlight presentation. I couldn’t see anything announcing this was a Disney film and it must be one of the films already listed for a release when Disney bought Fox. Fox Searchlight was Fox’s niche brand focusing on slightly left-field or ‘smaller’ films and Ad Astra turns out to be a strange hybrid. The Chinese Bona Film Group were presumably looking for a science fiction blockbuster for Chinese distribution on IMAX screens whereas some of the US production partners seem to be from an American ‘Indie’ background and director James Gray is placed somewhere between ‘studio’ and ‘independent’ US cinema. I haven’t seen any of Gray’s previous films but I note that his debut feature Little Odessa (1994) won both a Silver Lion and the acting prize for Vanessa Redgrave at Venice.
The plot outline suggests a familiar American story about a father and son. Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, a USAF space pilot in the not too distant future who is sent on a mission to Neptune to investigate the possible source of ‘power surges’ which seem to be aimed at Earth and which threaten Earth’s security. The suggestion is that they may be connected to the disappearance several years ago of the Lima Project spacecraft and crew led by McBride’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy had assumed that his father was dead and is committed to fulfilling his mission.
The narrative itself seems to be divided into sections which draw on familiar genre scenarios from various science fiction/space adventures. So Roy’s initial journey to the Moon and then Mars is reminiscent of 2001 with the addition of an action sequence and the introduction of elements of the paranoia thriller (has Roy been told ‘everything’ by the military top brass?). There are action sequences involving ‘space walks’ like those in Gravity and a short horror/thriller sequence. All these are presented with a Max Richter musical score complementing Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography. The film looks great and sounds great and all those VFX guys from around the world can be proud. Unfortunately the script by James Gray and his long-term collaborator Ethan Gross seemed to me to be very weak. I note that the IMDb plot summary includes this line: “His [Roy’s] journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos”. I must have missed when that happened.
The casting decisions on the film seem at first to square with calls for diversity and the most joyous moment in the film is a clip of the Nicholas Brothers dancing in Stormy Weather (1943). But the significant characters are really only Pitt and Jones and the supporting characters are mainly ‘American’. Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler are completely wasted by the script. I’ve seen at least one ad promoting ‘Brad Pitt and Liv Tyler’ as the stars and that is nonsense. The characters are also primarily American as if space exploration in the future will be still on a national basis. This gender/nationalism question makes me think of other science fiction films, including Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (UK-US 2007) – similarly a Fox Searchlight film but with much more imaginative casting. I found Sunshine to be much more entertaining, spoiled only by its overly religious ending. Religion seems to be everywhere in Ad Astra as well and that seems very American.
I also thought about Arrival, a film which I think has been under-rated and is the best sf film I’ve seen for some time. It seems to have something interesting to say and a real emotional heart. And it focuses on a woman. But like many of the most successful SF films, Arrival was based on a successful original short story. I couldn’t find any ideas as gripping in Ad Astra and I got the impression that the film’s funders thought that the spectacular elements of the film were more important than the ideas in the narrative.
I’m not a scientist and I don’t know much about astro-physics, but the science of Ad Astra seemed tosh. However, I have to admit that audiences seem to like this film, especially in the UK where after two weeks and a very small drop in takings it leads the international film market. I think this is a bad sign for the future of cinema.