A Pitt makes a Poor Bullock
There has been some concerned muttering amongst the commentariat of late, brought on by some unusual statistics from the global box office – while this year has indeed seen the most successful movie of all time, attendance in general seems to be on a downward trajectory. People are going to the cinema less, and when they do go, it's probably to something funded by Disney. Coupled to this is the fact that, of the top twenty films at the US box office so far this year, only two of them have not been a remake or some form of sequel, and barely any of them have been star vehicles in the traditional sense. Perhaps it is the case that the old star system is withering away – I have commented here in the past that while audiences have turned out in droves to the last two or three movies featuring Thor, Chris Hemsworth is not capable of opening a movie playing any other character. Why this should be of genuine concern to anyone other than millionaire movie stars I'm not quite sure, but there you go.
All of this makes James Gray's Ad Astra more than usually interesting, for it looks very much like an attempt at an old-school big movie – it's not a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation (though this is a point we shall be returning to), and it's built around a big star performance from Brad Pitt, a leading man of the old school. (I do recall stories from about fifteen years ago, when Marvel were just setting up their operation, about them hiring big names to play all their characters – Tom Cruise was in talks for Iron Man, Brad Pitt was mentioned as a candidate for Captain America, and so on. Clearly either these guys all asked for too much money or Marvel figured out very early on that the appeal of these films would lie in the characters, not the performers.) Nowadays, as noted, this is noteworthy, and the fact it looks like another attempt at making the 'proverbial really good science fiction movie' (S. Kubrick, March 31st 1964) only makes it more interesting to those of us who love the genre.
The movie is set in an unspecified near future (technology has advanced to the point where they can get a spacecraft to the outer planets in well under a year, but Subway are still operating), and Pitt plays top astronaut Roy McBride, renowned for his eerie calm in stressful situations. One of these comes at the top of the film, where a strange power surge results in him falling off what's essentially an orbital tower and having to keep it together long enough to open his parachute. It turns out there have been a string of such incidents, which the powers that be have determined to be the result of cosmic rays emanating from somewhere in the vicinity of Neptune. It is feared that this is the result of the long-lost Lima project, which was sent to this region to use anti-matter to search for alien intelligences. As Roy's dad Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones) was in charge of the mission, and is missing presumed dead in space, the authorities have decided it would be a good idea to get Roy to send him a message, presumably in the hope this will make him knock it off with the cosmic rays.
For important and serious plot reasons, Roy has to go to Mars in order to talk into a radio set, and so off he sets, accompanied part of the way by one of his dad's old colleagues (Donald Sutherland): first to the Moon, then to the red planet itself. Along the way there is a moon buggy chase with laser guns and an encounter with killer baboons (I did wonder what the killer baboons were doing in space, but then I had misheard the name of McBride Sr.'s mission as the Lemur project, and assumed there must be some primate-based connection).
Now, if you're anything like me, you will probably be thinking something along the lines of: killer baboons? Laser gun moon buggy chases? What kind of movie is this, exactly? Well, quite. The thing about Ad Astra is that it may not actually be a sequel, adaptation, or remake, but it is certainly a highly derivative movie – there's more than a touch of Apocalypse Now to the structure of the plot, but mostly it draws upon the better space and SF movies of recent years. There's a lot of Interstellar to this tale of a lengthy voyage in supposedly realistic spacecraft, but also the basic premise and subtext of the movie is that of Gravity, inasmuch as the external adventures undergone by Pitt's character mirror the way in which he comes to terms with more personal, psychological issues as the story progresses. This makes for a thoughtful, stately, and arguably often portentous movie.
Hence the buggy chase and the baboons, I guess: they have the feel of something inserted, not especially credibly or organically, just to pep the movie up a bit whenever it gets a bit too slow. I suppose I shouldn't complain too much, as they did jolt me back into paying full attention when I was honestly flagging a bit. We seem to have arrived back at point where new SF films are either good-looking, but entirely cerebral and humourless, or almost wholly camp fantasy; Ad Astra sorely needed to be a bit more fun.
It would be remiss of me not to say that this is still a lavish, very good-looking film, and Brad Pitt gives an excellent, subtle performance that is honestly rather better than the script deserves. The world created by the film doesn't make a very great deal of sense (as mentioned, it features Subway and laser pistols in close proximity), but it's not without interest, even if the director's intentions are occasionally difficult to make out (flying to the Moon is explicitly likened to air travel nowadays, which is an odd approach to a film supposedly about the mystery and wonder of going into space).
In the end the script just isn't good enough, and the film feels compromised by the need to include obvious action beats to break up Pitt's introspective monologuing. What was left implicit in Gravity is gone over very heavy-handedly here; there's a slightly clunky plot device where Pitt has to keep making log entries recording his psychological state, just to facilitate the subtext of the movie. The fact it is also essentially about a troubled father-son relationship also feels like a hoary old chestnut. I mean, fair play to the film-makers for having the guts to make a film like this one, and Pitt carries the movie well. But good intentions alone won't necessarily carry you very far, let alone to the stars.