Ad Astra is structured in a similar manner as the classic Apocalypse Now. We have a mission to stop someone who has gone rogue and now threatens the world. The film is largely about getting to the destination while pondering along the way about what made them move away from their mission. And yet Ad Astra is nothing close to the knockout that is Apocalypse Now. Why?
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that Copolla's film is made by an auteur at the height of his powers. Ad Astra is far more an actor's film, even if director James Gray has a distinct voice. The film is a showcase for Brad Pitt, who shines in the film. Few other characters in film matter as much as his RoyMcBride. Roy was hand-selected for the mission for two reasons, his heart rate never goes above 80 and the rogue pilot who needs to be stopped is his father. There is no better example of how little any other character matters than in Roy's ex-wife (Liv Tyler). They cast a well-known actress in the role and yet she doesn't get a single moment to expand the character out. She doesn't speak or have any characteristics other than "wife who leaves him."
The thin supporting characters are a clear choice. Gray wants to keep us with Roy the whole time. The camera regularly closes in on Pitt's face, searching for the internal struggle of the character. Pitt excels here, giving his second great performance of the year. Tommy Lee Jones gets the next biggest role as his father and he does a serviceable job in the role.
Ad Astra is visually striking. The gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is some of the best of the year so far. Matched with Kevin Thompson's production design, the film is a visual feast. Max Richter's score is also very memorable, moving past droning noise beds that are often used in sci-fi films.
So why doesn't the film come together as a whole? It is for a few reasons. The bland narration we get from Roy often tells us what we should be thinking about. This is frustrating as the film would be stronger by letting audiences ponder the big questions the film raises on their own. This being a Disney film, I wonder if that was a studio note.
There is also the uneven pace of the film. Ad Astra often plots like a thriller and yet never wants to raise the film's pulse, not unlike its lead character. We get an impressive car chase on the surface of the moon that doesn't thrill. We get a desperate race to get on board a ship and yet it is void of tension.
Instead, the film wants to be more of a therapy session for daddy issues. This may sound reductive but for a film as expansive and big as this, it ends up with a pretty shallow final act. Ad Astra postures as a big, heady sci-fi film in the vane of 2001: A Space Odyssey and yet ends up as a small film about fathers and sons. This is well-worn territory and unfortunately, the film doesn't offer much new.