Brad Pitt and his perpetually twitchy emotional-barometer lower lip (wanna know how he’s feeling or thinking? just watch the lip!) star as even-keeled Roy McBride, an astronaut whose most impressive skill seems to be keeping his pulse in check. Professionally revered, Roy struggles in his personal life – or so it’s implied, thanks to a wildly pointless flashback cameo by Liv Tyler as Roy’s fed-up ex. When the Earth is knocked on its heels by a “surge” of space power (think: solar flare x100), Roy is tapped for a mission to the vicinity of Neptune where, it’s believed, his long-presumed-dead astronaut dad (Tommy Lee Jones) may or may not still be alive and may or may not somehow be responsible for the destructive surges.
Now, this all sounds pretty straightforward and, for the most part, the film trudges along this A to B trajectory. Roy suits up, blasts off and finds himself in assorted bizarre and challenging space scenarios – killer baboons! ghost ships! emotional distress! Ruth Negga turning up on Mars in a role even more pointless than Liv Tyler’s! – all the while pondering life, existence, what it all means, and whether his journey will actually end with a reunion with his father.
But the more Pitt tries to emote and turn inward, the less believable he becomes. Between the furrowed brow and the lip tics and the pensive stares into middle distance, Roy and his contemplative space trek start to feel like a parody. Or a shameless ploy for awards.
As I sat through the very obviously Oscar-bait-y epic – which does boast some gorgeous cinematography and art direction – I didn’t believe his emotional arc, I didn’t buy his inner conflict and, ultimately, I didn’t care what happened. It didn’t help matters that so many of the plot “twists” (and I use the term loosely) and characters thrown into the proceedings were just (spoiler alert) red herrings that led nowhere, narratively speaking. There were some impressive sequences (Roy working on, and falling from, a humungous space antenna) and some clever blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags (the space-travel terminals that have the same tacky retail outlets as present-day airports), which felt like they’d lead to a more interesting film... but didn’t.
It was also frustrating to see that any cast member with two X chromosomes served as little more than set dressing. Why bother casting Liv Tyler if she’s just going to drift into memories and not speak? Nevermind that the filmmakers cast three talented women of color – Negga, Kimberly Elise and LisaGay Hamilton – and then gave them absolutely nothing to do. Negga at least has a very-slightly extended cameo with actual dialogue, but I’m pretty sure both Elise and Hamilton had no more than a line or two each, total.
Worst of all might be the ending, both in terms of plausibility and impact. I can’t really discuss either without spoiling what happens, but suffice it to say I had two big questions: 1. how is the ending possible, given science, physics and the process Roy had to follow to get to Neptune?, and 2. THAT’S IT?! That’s all? It’s over? Wait. What?! Don’t get me wrong: I love an introspective, understated film. I like symbolism and subtlety. I like outer-space epics. And I don’t need “action” in order for me to enjoy a blockbuster (the Fast and Furious franchise notwithstanding). But this? Stunning to look at? Absolutely. Rich and satisfying? Not so much.
In space, no one can hear you scream. They also can’t hear you sigh, which is probably for the best, since – for myriad reasons – that’s all I did for much of Ad Astra’s two-hour running time. Ah well.