It’s the near future: a time of “conflict and hope”, according to the first title cards of James Gray’s latest offering, the space drama Ad Astra. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an unflappable astronaut with ice in his veins, and whose pulse doesn’t redline even as he falls to Earth from the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
A mysterious electric surge caused the mission’s incident along with thousands of others worldwide, and it becomes apparent that the energy is coming from Neptune, the site of a lost expedition – the Lima Project – run by Roy’s long lost father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who was previously thought to be dead. Roy is recruited by Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) among others for a mission that will eventually see him arrive at the furthest reaches of the Solar System to discover if his father is alive and the source of the surges which continue and threaten the possible extinction of life on Earth.
It’s a frequent occupational hazard of the critic to always find the apt comparison instead of evaluating a work on its own merits. But a film like Ad Astra feels at times so derivative that the comparisons are as unavoidable as asteroids in an asteroid belt. There are the obvious generic comparisons: the emotional overtones of parental abandonment of Interstellar; the gee-whizz set pieces of Gravity; the psychological evaluations of Blade Runner 2049. Though perhaps Ad Astra’s greatest debt is to Apocalypse Now, with Roy becoming the Willard heading upriver/outer space to find Kurtz/Roy.
This provides Ad Astra with its disconnected episodic structure – an action scene on the Moon and then off to Mars – as well as its endlessly obvious voiceover. Roy’s voiceover, unfortunately, wasn’t scripted by Michael Herr, and instead what we get from screenwriters Gray and Ethan Gross sounds too frequently like a bad homage to Terrence Malick. When the voiceover isn’t oversharing, the dialogue is so roundly explicit at one point it sounds like they divided up the treatment of the film and are just reading it out loud.
There’s so much talent involved, from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and composer Max Richter to Gray himself, whose The Lost City of Z was one of the best films of 2016. Ad Astra looks handsome and there are flashes of brilliance – the lunar chase and the opening set-piece in particular. But scenes come and go with a weightlessness that has nothing to do with zero gravity. Ruth Negga turns up, expositions and goes away again and in what might be a weird reference to Fight Club, there’s a space monkey.
Some details are nicely telling – Virgin Atlantic charges $125 for a pillow on their flights to the Moon – but we don’t get to see enough of the world for it to make much sense. Liv Tyler has an insultingly slight role as that tiresome stereotype of the one female character who tells men not to do stuff, a kind of insignificant other. The search for intelligent life ultimately proves a bust – not just in the deeper reaches of space but in Ad Astra itself.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty