Here's James Gray's masterclass on how to ruin a movie that was perfectly above-average until he got to it in post.
Directed by James Gray
Written by Ethan Gross and James Gray
I can't claim I know how Ad Astra is going to fare commercially, but were I gambling man, I do know how I would bet: it will do poorly, and all the film people will wail and gnash their teeth about the death of the proverbial Movie For Adults. (The film has, whatever else, garnered surprisingly strong reviews, and so if it does fail to vindicate 20th Century Fox's faith in it—expressed to the tune of a rather reckless $80-100 million—then the wailing and gnashing are absolutely guaranteed to follow.) And that would be more tolerable if it didn't join a line of recent Movies For Adults that are more childish than the Movies For Babies that actually make money. Ad Astra is director and co-writer James Gray's level best attempt to make Terrence Malick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and—in brief but amazing moments—Terrence Malick's Flash Gordon), up to and including using one of Malick's stars, Brad Pitt; and, since what I'm describing would've obviously been the greatest movie of all time, you can tell it didn't totally work out. It winds up a lot more like a sequel to Blade Runner's theatrical cut that decided that Harrison Ford's narration was the good part. It's hard to know what to make of that, except that Gray must've been one of the three people who actually got to see Malick's also-Pitt-narrated meditation on space and existence and stuff, Voyage of Time, and he really, really liked it.
Now, I say "sequel to Blade Runner" assuming that this brings to mind the Roger Deakins-shot Blade Runner 2049, which, you know, I'm a very big defender of. I imagine Gray is too. Ad Astra found itself delayed—it may have started principal photography under cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in August 2017, but I'm guessing some scenes weren't shot till October or November—and in the meantime it picked up a noticeably Deakinsy tint, with more than one moment that may not quite directly quote BR2049, but does seem to be Hoytema declaring, "Oh, Roger, you're no big deal, anybody can do that." Obviously, it's only fair to spot Gray and other co-writer Ethan Gross their used future premise, but there are startling similarities beyond just that, starting with a science hero who might as well be a Replicant, this being Roy McBride (Pitt), an astronaut introduced to us by way of one of his constant automated psychological evaluations, these being almost identical to K's "baseline" tests in BR2049 except, well, they're boring. (And so not only does Ad Astra feature a constant voiceover from Pitt, in which he unnecessarily and inanely narrates Roy's feelings directly at the audience; a substantial and unwise fraction of this movie is further dedicated to overlong scenes of Pitt getting therapy from a hostile robot, in which he does the exact same thing.)
It's no surprise that we soon strike out for a sweeping God metaphor in the guise of screenwritery daddy issues (and one of the movie's problems is never quite settling on which to emphasize), and to the extent I have any business whatsoever saying it, Ad Astra is kind of like an atheistic sci-fi adapation of The Divine Comedy. Not the popular first two parts, but the unloved second sequel, Paradiso, hopping from celestial sphere to celestial sphere while an ex-love (Liv Tyler) pops up in rigorously-controlled out-of-focus flashbacks and Roy seeks out a Creator (Tommy Lee Jones) who has already demonstrated that he hates his creation and, upon being found, shall tell him so explicitly. And this is interesting—more "theoretically" than "actually," but still interesting—because Malick's films are pantheistically Christian, deeply concerned with the divine power they feel thrumming beneath the surface of the material world; and so it is incredibly weird, but not uncompelling, to see Malickian style turned to such un-Malickian ends, in a film that emphasizes instead just how empty the universe is of anything except us, and all of us are pretty empty too.
Anyway, Roy's constant testing and re-testing underlines just how much he's a cog in a machine and likes it that way, which means that within a period of 365 days we'll have had at least four movies insisting that space is the place for self-annihilating psychopaths, starting last year with what I assume is the best, First Man, continuing with what I assume is the worst, High Life, and though it's not out yet, Lucy in the Sky is supposed to be very bad indeed. What this means for Ad Astra is that our protagonist is characterized almost entirely by: 1)the way he lives in the shadow of his legendary father, Clifford McBride (that's Jones), who abandoned him during childhood in favor of leading a lost expedition in search of extraterrestrial life; and 2)his freakishly low heart rate, even in situations of extreme stress, such as the disaster setpiece that opens the film. One or both these traits will be mentioned, probably more than once, in every single conversation Roy has with any character. Including himself.
That disaster, it turns out, was precipitated by bursts of gamma rays originating from Neptune, and, as this was the final destination of Roy's father's mission, and as that mission involved a big tank of antimatter (the only thing that could generate such energetic photons), it does not take a rocket scientist to put 2 and 2 together and determine that somehow Clifford's project (and perhaps Clifford himself) is responsible for the chaos unfolding on Earth. Thus is Roy sent upon a quest that takes him to the moon and then to Mars, and ultimately to the outer solar system, with the aim of making contact with his old man and figuring out just what the hell is happening out by Neptune. So there's a whole Conradian, Apocalypse Now In Space thing going on here, too, because every possible influence one could cite for Ad Astra makes it sound like the best movie in history.
Sure, throw Gravity onto the pile.
The thing is, and I don't know if this is a plus or a minus, you are constantly aware throughout Ad Astra that there's no good reason for it to be as underwhelming as it is. Take that Deakinsian cinematography by Hoytema: it's fantastic. It imprints a definite and unique mood on each of Roy's various planets and planetoids, but it's unified too, all shades of a different kind of depression, from the desaturated beiges and grays of a spiritually destitute Earth to the crass neons and stark monochromes of a violent moon to the dangerous reds and yellows of Mars to the overweening blues of Neptune and the depths of despair. It's also just insanely beautiful to gaze upon: Hoytema does more to address the tension between the great dream of outer space—that is, new resources, new ways of life, the angel-aliens who can save us from ourselves—and its stark reality—that is, the same old shit, only now in an uninhabitable environment—than the script does. And the script has whole monologues about it. Hoytema's backed up by Gray and editors John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, who—if nothing else—find a deep melancholy and dissatisfaction within their subject, with long and disapproving shots of humans swarming out into space and remaking it in their own broken image. The visuals find a match, maybe more than a match, in Max Richter's contemplative but moody score, a varied work that enforces a surprisingly even tone on a cinematic experience that can sometimes blast from almost unbearably severe (in a good way) to borderline-goofy (in the best way) in a heartbeat.
Intriguingly, one way that Ad Astra is not doing a Blade Runner is while it does take on a worn-out used future as its backdrop, this winds up expressed more in its attitude than in Kevin Thompson's production design, which seems voluntarily trapped in the summer of 1968; the sheer incongruity of Space Age optimism (though it gets more and more degraded as Roy gets further from home) with the hopelessness of 21st century ennui is possibly the most genuinely fascinating choice in the whole film, and in this regard even the script finally helps, underlining its throwback quality by the frequent and anachronistic invocation of a specifically-Christian God by all these astronauts out in the void, albeit only in hollow mimickry of all the production-line squareheads who took those first giant leaps for mankind decades before. It's driven by a desire for a God more than, it seems, a belief in one.
Which is what Ad Astra's getting at, of course, though I honestly suspect its writers started with one of its final exchanges—a legitimately poetic bit between father (not Father) and son, which finds the tiniest spark of hope in the vast bleakness of the universe—and just worked backward, without ever managing to make an actual story out of it. There's a rumor that Fox, finding this displeasing, forced reshoots. (There is no corresponding rumor that Fox forced the narration, but if I were inclined to be charitable toward Gray, I would believe it if I heard it.) Counter-intuitively, if those rumors are true, the reshoots actually helped: Ad Astra's best parts are when it breaks from its meditation and just gives into its pulpy-as-fuck scenario. (And Ad Astra is consummately pulp, despite the airs it puts on. Indeed, one of its smaller annoyances is the way it pretends to be hard sci-fi but is exceedingly stupid, most astoundingly in a plan to deal with the undesirable release of antimatter by blowing up its container.) These crazy setpieces weigh heavily in the film's favor, and add to its Conradian texture by, well, occasionally breaking out into some gonzo adventure that's still somehow just as austere as everything else—hey, neither Heart of Darkness nor Apocalypse Now are uneventful boat rides. I don't think I could ever despise any movie that gave us a car chase on the moon (I'm agnostic on "a fight with medical research baboons on a dead space freighter," but it's the thought that counts), but I ought to love any movie that does a car chase on the moon this well.
And that's why it's such an incredible frustration that Ad Astra is such a terrifically unlovable garbage fire of a film. It had everything it needed to work, up to and including a great central performance from Pitt, one that finally gets ahold of the world-weary wisdom he's been trying to grasp for the past decade (at least since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but has only intermittently found, most recently failing to find it in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. It's the kind of wisdom obtained by recognizing you don't know shit, and it plays wonderfully across the aging beauty of the former Adonis's face.
But then that redundancy factor kicks in, like Ad Astra was, itself, built by a whole team of NASA engineers, each with the kind of haircut that advertises their active disrespect for aesthetics. The film's best actor is now countered by its worst, who unfortunately also happens to be Pitt, and who's been burdened with laughably-portentous narration that's written so clumsily it either repeats lines of dialogue, explicates his performance, or describes what's on the screen and how we're supposed to feel about it. Every time Ad Astra builds any momentum, or conjures any atmosphere, or pursues any themes—damn near any time that isn't a potentially-reshot action scene, it turns out—it decides it must fill its silence and shatter its mood. Less Malick than Malick parody, sure his films have lots of breathy narration. But they have breathy narration because they don't have any dialogue or plot (or, for that matter, characters) that their breathy narration would interfere with. What you're left with here, then, is a deeply-iffy and often downright-awful script with dumbly-expressed ideas and plot holes that stretch from Mars to Neptune, but with all the audiovisual splendor in the world to compensate for it. And yet it is so obnoxiously unwilling to trust itself that it invites contemptuous laughter at least as often as it does the rapture it's so obviously setting out for. I can't help but like it. But please, wake me up for Ad Astra: The Final Cut.
Score: 6/10, and I'll still probably buy it on 4K
P.S.: Holy hell, I just realized that his name is Roy. How batty is that?