Roger Ebert used to tell a story about being asked what he thought of a recent movie. He replied he thought it was the best movie of the year. The response to that was, “oh, that doesn’t sound like something we’d like.”
Ad Astra is very much not the best movie of the year, but it reminded me of Ebert’s story because I think it’s the sort of movie people imagine when a critic says something like that. That is: It looks great, tackles big themes, and is so self-serious as to be mildly oppressive.
Ad Astra follows astronaut Brad Pitt in the “near future,” as he’s sent on a mission to contact his father, astronaut Tommy Lee Jones, who commanded a voyage to Neptune about 30 years earlier — something that’s now resulting in major problems on Earth. The two had a fraught relationship, largely because Jones was so obsessive about his work that he had little interest in family, and this has resulted in Pitt both spending his life lamenting their disconnection, and also in him taking on some of his father’s worst qualities.
Pitt’s outward performance is nearly affectless, but we know his interior life is complex and conflicted, because we’re told so throughout the film in an especially ponderous voiceover. His mission involves some bizarre detours with an unexpectedly large body count, I assume to show this is a rather dystopian “near future,” and also that Pitt’s singular focus on his father causes severe trauma to those around him.
The big problem here is that Ad Astra is just exceedingly unsubtle. Its imagery is beautiful but exasperatingly heavy handed, and it’s sure that what it’s saying is capital-I “Important.” I do appreciate its genuine sincerity though—it truly believes in itself. That’s uncommon and welcome.
I didn’t connect with Ad Astra emotionally, which kind of torpedoes a movie like this, but I think some people will. It certainly has something to say. I just wish it hadn’t said it so very loudly.