AD ASTRA runs 123 enthralling minutes, the last several taken up with the expected credit crawl. On it, no less than 481 individuals are listed under the Visual Effects contingent. They certainly gave it their all: visually, it’s one of the richest science-fiction movies you could wish for. Thankfully, it also hooks up on the fragile human end of the spectacular if otherwise unforgiving cosmic scale.
Sometime in the “near future” (optimism off the charts, but that’s okay), Earth and its advance stations on the Moon and Mars are being zapped by mysterious deadly power surges emanating from somewhere around Neptune, where an expedition vanished 16 years before. Sent to find out the why and/or who/what behind the disturbances is highly regarded astronaut ‘Maj.Roy McBride’ (Brad Pitt), whose father (Tommy Lee Jones), was the legendary space pioneer in charge of the missing mission. Both father and son are remote, in every sense.
Directed by James Gray, who co-wrote the script with Ethan Gross. Gray, who’d written & directed the thoughtful, richly textured The Lost City Of Z and The Immigrant, sought to impart a “Heart Of Darkness” flavor to the journey Pitt undertakes, as well as hoping to deliver “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie”. He blended state-of-the-art design and action elements with meditative, psychological qualities on the order of pictures like Solaris, Contact, Interstellar and The Martian. As long as you’re shooting at outer space, aim high.
Luckily, the right star was chosen in Pitt, who does a superior job playing McBride as someone cool enough in dire straits that his heart rate remains impervious to stress, but beneath the calm facade has emotional trauma under strain from a lifetime of tight damage control. Pitt just keeps getting better all the time (same year as his coup in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood). Jones gets to go deep-end crackers, but likewise plays it close to the vest.
A feast for your eyes to soak in is offered up by glorious vistas of the planets and several ingeniously arranged action sequences: the dizzying radio tower collapse, highspeed dueling with pirates on the moon (Earth manages to bring its political b.s. to space, go figure), battling ferocious lab specimens at a derelict bio-research ship, navigating the rings of Neptune, and naturally, a countdown to a big boom—really cool stuff.
In fleeting support mode: Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Natasha Lyonne, Kimberley Elise and Loren Dean.
Reviews were strong, but it under-performed financially, ranking just 55th in the States, with a cumulative gross of $132,876,666 around the sphere. That was not nearly sufficient against a cost that had rocketed to $100,000,000, thanks to re-shoots that went a good 20% over the original budget. Among the 18 producers were director Gray and Mr.Pitt.
The music score was done by Max Richter. A sole Oscar nomination came, for Sound Mixing. Since the writer-director was mining Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”, the end result does mirror Apocalypse Now in that the emotional payoff at the finale doesn’t fully measure up to the voyage incidents, but what’s on view en route is so compelling that the so-so finish doesn’t damage the whole. A tad qualified, but still a winner.