Ad Astra

Sometimes film trailers are far better than the films they advertise. I was looking forward to seeing Brad Pitt in space, fighting baddies on the moon, saving the world with craggy support and gravitas from old timers Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones. Alas, this sci-fi tale of an astronaut sent to find his long-lost dad is bafflingly bad, strangely unengaging and lacking in excitement.

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For two long hours we wait for what must surely be a Big Reveal or extra-terrestrial payoff. But … nothing much happens and when it does we don’t much care. As one character says, he has seen the “sublime surfaces” of the universe, but in the end, “there was nothing.”

The film starts with po-faced portentousness and a small bang: “The near future,” we read, “A time of both hope and conflict. Humanity looks to the stars …” (Latin translation: ‘Ad Astra’). Major Roy McBride (Pitt) jumps off a sky-high ladder to escape an explosion.

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This, we learn, is one of many worldwide ‘catastrophes’ caused by a mysterious ‘power surge’. For some reason the astro-boffins are blaming Roy’s dad (Jones), who disappeared 29 years ago after blazing a trail across the cosmos. “We believe your father is still alive near Neptune,” they tell him, and “all life could be destroyed” unless Roy finds him and puts a stop to whatever he’s doing.

Ad Astra could have been so much better. With Brad Pitt in military mode, it could have been Apocalypse Now in space, with Brad despatched into the Heart of Darkness to track down and kill a rogue commander. But instead of taking the audience on a cathartic acid-trip writer/director James Gray tranquilizes us with Soma-like ‘mood stabilisers’. The first-person voiceover, so immediate and vital in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece, is here disconnected psycho-babble. Roy’s interior voice says things like: “all I see is pain” and “in the end the son suffers the sins of the father.” But his face looks bored, and it’s contagious.

It’s not Brad’s fault. He tries his best with an antiseptic script. But he really needs to run around more, kick some ass and have fun. Roy is given no side-kick to spark off, and lovely though his face is, Pitt ain’t no Mark Rylance. It is cruel to expect Brad’s face and plodding voiceover to do the heavy-lifting in a science fiction film that should be much more visually interesting.

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There are occasional glimpses of life out there: the scenes on the moon, with its tube-trains, Lunar Path motorway signs and tourist enticements, reminded me of Total Recall (the Arnie version). And the buggy-chase and shootout with ‘pirates’ was fun.

But even raging killer space baboons can’t save this turkey from a roasting.

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