Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox / IMDb

'Ad Astra' Visually Stuns but Generally Disappoints

Ad Astra is visually stunning, without a doubt. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is the craftsman behind some of the most memorable visuals in recent years. From the repressed color palette that captures the claustrophobia of bureaucratic espionage in the dark, rainy ‘70s London (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), to the breathtaking, otherworldly landscapes that feel fantastical yet also grounded in naturalism (Interstellar), the Swedish cinematographer never fails to impress with his technical versatility.

More importantly, Hoytema understands what makes these stories captivating—the underlying emotional pillars that are essential to the human experience. The best example of this humanist focus is Hoytema’s work in Her; the gentle, intimate love story against the vibrant backdrop of the futuristic L.A landscape is heartwarming, largely thanks to Hoytema’s masterful use of warm colors and natural lighting that create an optimistic vision for a compassionate future. 

In Ad Astra, Hoytema again showcases his mastery of color schemes. The first act on earth is marked by a set of grounded colors that invoke the rugged yet soothing texture of soil that, while unglamorous, has nurtured humans for eons. When the scene moves to the war-torn moon colony, the color palette turns to a cold and aloof grey, with the occasional metallic and malicious glare from guns. The Mars outpost is surrounded by an ominous orange-red hue. The giant red planet is mysterious and unsettling, contributing to the anxiety building up in McBride (Brad Pitt) over the unknown fate of his father—the driving plot device for the first half of the film.

This uneasiness takes a morbid turn as McBride learns about the brutal murders his father committed; the red hue that covers the frame suddenly seems grotesque, resembling a pool of blood at a gruesome crime scene. When McBride ventures further into space and finally reaches the edge of the solar system, he finds himself immersed in a sea of calm, dark blue. Deep space is imposingly vast and quiet; all the noises, doubts, and distractions that have plagued McBride seem to be absorbed by the vastness of the space surrounding him. It is in this silence that he finally confronts his inner demons in the form of his long lost father.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright loved playing with the concept of compression and release in his designs. Before showing the grand living space, he would often first funnel people through a narrow, constricted entryway. The abrupt change in scale serves to elicit awe in the grandiosity of the house.

The concept of compression and release is also featured prominently in Ad Astra. Many of the most stunning scenes are preceded by prolonged sequences that take place in confined spaces. At the start of the film, McBride is seen crawling through narrow tubes before finally emerging onto a platform overlooking a breathtakingly peaceful earth. The “fall from space” sequence that follows, which provides a thrill and authentic adrenaline rush on par with Gravity, is perhaps one of the most captivating open sequences in recent sci-fi. 

McBride is then seen crammed in a commercial spacecraft to the moon, only to find himself cruising through the vast, grey desolation moments later. The most memorable use of compression takes place in the abandoned spacecraft McBride encounters en route to Mars. As McBride clumsily floats through the tight but empty chambers of the spacecraft, an unsettling sense of claustrophobia that echoes the tone of Alien becomes overbearing; this makes the abrupt and violent primate attack—which might be a deliberate nod to the eerie but brutally honest portrayal of violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey—all the more shocking.

Following an emotional confrontation with his aloof father in the enclosed space of a defunct space station, McBride has to directly acknowledge the fact that his father never cared for him. He then finds himself tearing through an asteroid belt, leaving his burdens behind in a spectacular fashion and returns to the familiarity of home, completing his bildungsroman.

Aside from cinematography, one of the factors that set Ad Astra apart from other carnivalesque space fooleries is its crafty, naturalistic production design.

George Lucas pioneered the concept of the “used future”—a production design philosophy that seeks to create a futuristic yet believable world. Ad Astra does just that in a clever and relatable way; the $150 blankets on the commercial rocket and the moon station with security dogs and giant Subway signs uncannily resemble what looks like Laguardia airport meets Total Recall. The technology depicted in the film is often bulky, inconvenient, and awkward; people living in this vision of the future seem uncertain of their own future, while bureaucratic incompetence and territorial conflicts seem to have followed humans into deep space.

Ad Astra has the potential to be a launchpad for an entire cinematic world that would be the stage for discussing mature political and philosophical issues.

Interestingly enough, this unrealized potential also best captures the flaws of the film. Despite stunning visual storytelling and art direction, the narrative is ultimately lackluster. Visual spectacles aside, the plot of Ad Astra is dull while its characters seem static and one-dimensional. Most of the obstacles McBride faces in his quest feel contrived and his course of action questionable.

Characters are introduced and casually discarded soon after; their individual existences lack any defining purpose and they seem replaceable. Donald Sutherland’s character has the potential to be a surrogate father figure, but is quickly discarded after the first act. Ruth Negga’s character is introduced as a kind of MacGuffin to provide a reason for the plot to continue after an unexciting midpoint revelation; with no backstory or any trace of personality depicted, she delivers a moral conundrum to McBride with a dry exposition that feels half-hearted.

Liv Tyler is one of the top-billed cast members with an absurdly minimal role; she only appears in at most three flashbacks for a total of perhaps 30 seconds—just long enough for the audience to register having seen her face in the movie, but not long enough to make any impact on the plot or character development. If anything, her presence resembles the cloudy-eyed melodrama of badly-written teen romance novels. Any potential for her to offer an emotional counterpoint to the void left by McBride’s father is lost as she descends into a tired reiteration of the “concerned girlfriend” trope.

Part of the reason why the plot feels so unnatural is the dry and unconvincing dialogue, which often seems to defy the very basic notion of “show not tell.” Tyler’s only lines in the movies are so painfully bland they read like something written by Tommy Wiseau: “What are you thinking about? I worry about you. I love you.” McBride’s frequent monologues, which have the potential to give the protagonist more depth and breadth, unfortunately sound generic and insincere.

“So many times in my life I’ve screwed up. I’ve talked when I should have listened. I’ve been harsh when I should have been tender.” These lines do not offer any substantive information that reveals insights on the character’s past or beliefs that could help the audience understand and relate to him on a deeper level. Instead, they just sound like the product of an AI who has been fed thousands of scripts attempting to mimic the human language, without any understanding of the emotions and memories quintessential to the human experience.

The moment that could have been the emotional climax of the film is prematurely terminated by bland dialogue. McBride finally sees his father, and a catharsis by means of reconciliation seems possible—but Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride swiftly kills any hint of emotional nuance by simply stating, as if reading off of a memo card, “I never cared for you or your mother.” This declaration does nothing to resolve any preexisting conflicts or offer a resolution. As a result, instead of an emotional farewell, it feels more like a minor inconvenience; the audience is never offered the chance to develop an emotional bond with the characters who they never really got to know.

Despite the lackluster script, Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Pitt still shine. In a way, the weak script served as a testament to the actors’ range and talent. Jones is able to convey the despair of the deranged and disgraced scientist just with his eyes—the sadness and detachment are embroiled in the simple act of looking. He stares into the distance, right past his son and everything he’s known and loved. The Academy Award-winner masterfully captures the disillusionment and alienation that crush souls.

Pitt delivers a fascinating study on repressed emotions. His lines are so sparse and reveal so little that much of the character development relies on non-verbal cues—his gait, his facial expression, his silence and his outbursts—and Pitt does a fantastic job at modeling these behavioral elements. The one moment of powerful authenticity occurs when McBride decides to ditch the script he was given while attempting to reach his father, and simply says, “I would like to see you again, Dad.” No pretense, just emotion in its rawest form. And sometimes that’s enough.

Ad Astra has the ambition to be a futuristic Odyssey about love and loss, but ends up feeling like a well-produced yet excessively long music video with amazing visuals but negligible plot. One way that will guarantee viewing pleasure is to simply give up any attempt at connecting with the narrative on a deeper level, and just enjoy the ride. The spectacles are great, and the slow pace of the film can give it a contemplative quality.

Regardless, Ad Astra is still a well crafted, maverick piece that attempts to break the mold of the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster and explore something authentic. It asks questions about humans' relationship with space, with one another, and most importantly, with themselves. How do people deal with their losses, wants, and the unforeseen? These are all important questions, and Ad Astra deserves to be applauded for an honest attempt at confronting them.

Trying to capture the fleeting moments of sanity in a big, crazy world. Will probably end up on the streets.