‘Ad Astra’: A thought provoking, uneven epic

“Ad Astra” is a difficult film to peg down. Its story is complex and thematically rich, yet the way in which it’s told is distractingly barebones. Its sequences are inventive and impressive from a technical standpoint, but often too muted to be “exciting.” Its acting is stilted, sometimes boring even, but there are constant hints of brilliance to them.

Set in the near future, a sudden power surge from space causes worldwide catastrophe. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is tasked with tracking down and stopping its source.
A simple enough task, until his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) is believed to be behind the surges.

One area where the film absolutely excels is in its cinematography and special effects. Outer space in “Ad Astra” is stunning in its beauty and haunting in its vastness. It begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible and is honestly worth the price of admission just for that.
While the film has undeniable technical prowess, its plot leaves something to be desired.

Things are deceptively simple. Roy’s mission is fairly A to B, find his father and save Earth. A few dramatic wrinkles are added to this as things progress, but it never becomes more complicated than that.
That isn’t a bad thing though. A story doesn’t need complexity for it to be good. Where “Ad Astra” trips is the abundant evidence the film was at one point much larger than it is now.

Writer and director James Gray spent nearly two years editing the film, and unfortunately it shows. Plot points sometimes feel rushed and contrived. There’s a heavy feeling of something missing from the movie, even if one can’t definitively say what it is. It just doesn’t feel whole.
It never makes the story hard to follow, but it’s noticeable. The mark of good editing is that you don’t notice it at all.

When the film reaches for higher ambitions, however, it generally hits the mark. The climax is genuinely emotional, and the deeper themes the film explores are nuanced and heartbreaking.
“Ad Astra” is a predominantly good film, but it falters in one too many key aspects to make it something truly special.

It does stay firmly planted in the mind long after the credits roll, however. It’s a film that asks to be seen again and, for good and bad reasons, sticks with you and makes you want to talk about it — something any good movie ought to do.

mason.robert.dredge@mail.umkc.edu

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