Ad Astra

Ad Astra

2019, PG-13, 122 min. Directed by James Gray. Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 20, 2019

"Apocalypse Now meets 2001" is a hell of an elevator pitch. It's beyond regrettable that Ad Astra, which aspires to that level of insight and cultural import, has all the metaphysical weight of a Lincoln commercial.

Major Roy McBride (Pitt) carries a weight. He's a second-generation astronaut, the son of the legendary Clifford McBride (Jones), but the age of exploration is gone. Daddy disappeared on a mission to Pluto, an attempt to find traces of life beyond the electrostatic clutter of the inner heliosphere, and now his son is a glorified mechanic, clambering over a giant radio antenna while his relationship with his Earthbound (and silent) estranged wife Eve (Tyler) collapses. In the first of a series of spectacular set-pieces, a wave of cosmic rays that may or may not be the fault of McBride senior sweeps across the planet, causing electromagnetic devastation. Off the younger man must go, dispatched to kill his father or help him stave off disaster. After all, Willard must find his Kurtz, even if he's on the outer edges of the solar system, the Viet Cong are now moon pirates, and the French plantation becomes a way station on Mars.

Ad Astra is undoubtedly aspirational in its intent – but it's also trite. It thinks it has something profound to say about the human condition, and it proceeds to have every point clubbed over the audience's head by a whisper-mumbled narration from Pitt. It's undoubtedly a handsomely shot film (no surprise, with Interstellar and Dunkirk cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema behind the lens), but its conviction of its own genius is galling. It fails as a metaphysical treatise, and it can never work out whether its wants to be a drama guided by science, or a run-of-the-mill space adventure that flaunts the rules of physics. Add Donald Sutherland in the most thankless SF cameo since The Force Awakens audiences asked themselves, "Was that Max von Sydow?," a seemingly inadvertent reference to John Carpenter's cosmic comedy Dark Star, and a space madness plot ripped straight from Ren and Stimpy, and what you're left with feels like a pretentious 1970s adaptation of a faux-intellectual 1950s space pulp potboiler – just with contemporary effects.

What's frustrating is that director James Gray (The Lost City of Z, We Own the Night) has clearly done his research. Under the mush there are the bones of a real discussion about what humanity's future in space could and may be. From the rule of law to the commercialization of the void to the question of humanity's place in a functionally lifeless cosmos, Gray is grasping at issues that need tackling in popular culture before it's too late. He just has no illuminating insight.

Ad Astra's biggest error is that it leaves out the other half of the old flier's motto, per ardua ad astra – through struggle to the stars. The script by Gray and Fringe series story editor Ethan Gross is so hellbent on spoon-feeding the audience with half-baked philosophical ramblings from the younger McBride that they're never prepared to let the viewer do any of the work, to put the emotional and metaphorical pieces together themselves. It also undercuts the work done by Pitt, leading to one of his weakest performances in decades.

Of course, it's easy to compare Ad Astra to other astronautical adventures – but it's also fitting. The idea of humans in space is a powerful tool of reflection: By placing them in absolute isolation, their nature is revealed. Yet Ad Astra lacks the quiet, understated contemplation of First Man, or the heartfelt ruminations of Steven Soderbergh's unfairly overlooked version of Solaris. Instead, it's got about as much to say about family, attachment, and belonging as a Fast and Furious flick.

Showtimes

Fri., Oct. 18

12:15, 3:20, 6:25, 9:30

Sat., Oct. 19

11:25am, 2:50, 9:05

Mon., Oct. 21

12:10, 3:15, 6:20, 9:25

Tue., Oct. 22

3:15, 6:20, 9:25
AFA 12:10

Wed., Oct. 23

12:10, 3:15, 6:20, 9:25

Thu., Oct. 17

1:40, 4:50, 6:00, 9:15

Fri., Oct. 18

11:45am, 2:55, 6:00, 9:15

Sat., Oct. 19

12:45, 4:00, 7:00, 10:15

Sun., Oct. 20

1:00, 4:10, 6:55, 9:15

Mon., Oct. 21

11:00am, 2:05, 5:30, 8:25

Tue., Oct. 22

2:00, 5:05, 8:15
AFA 11:10am

Wed., Oct. 23

12:30, 3:45, 7:00, 9:50

Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane

5701 W. Slaughter, 512/861-7060, drafthouse.com/austin/theater/slaughter-lane

Showtimes at this venue are subject to frequent change. Please confirm daily times by phone or website.

Thu., Oct. 17

12:00, 3:05

Barton Creek Square (AMC)

2901 South Capital of Texas Hwy, 512/306-1991, www.amctheatres.com

Matinee discounts available before 4pm daily. Bring Your Baby matinees the first Tuesday of every month.

Fri., Oct. 18

CC/DVS 2:40, 8:20

Sat., Oct. 19

CC/DVS 2:40, 8:20

Sun., Oct. 20

CC/DVS 7:40, 10:40

Mon., Oct. 21

CC/DVS 1:30, 4:50, 7:50

Tue., Oct. 22

CC/DVS 1:30, 4:50, 7:50

Wed., Oct. 23

CC/DVS 1:30, 4:50, 7:50

Cinemark 20 and XD

N. I-35 & FM 1825, 512/989-8535

Cost for 3-D and XD shows is regular ticket price plus a premium.

Thu., Oct. 17

digital 7:10, 10:10

Cinemark Cedar Park

1335 E. Whitestone, Cedar Park, 800/326-3264

Call theatre for complete list of movies and showtimes.

Thu., Oct. 17

digital 1:35, 4:30

Fri., Oct. 18

digital 10:10am, 4:05, 10:20

Sat., Oct. 19

digital 10:10am, 4:05, 10:20

Sun., Oct. 20

digital 10:10am, 4:05, 10:20

Mon., Oct. 21

digital 1:10, 4:05, 7:20, 10:20

Tue., Oct. 22

digital 1:10, 4:05, 7:20, 10:20

Wed., Oct. 23

digital 1:10, 4:05, 7:20, 10:20

Fri., Oct. 18

digital 12:15, 3:20, 6:20, 9:20

Sat., Oct. 19

digital 12:15, 3:20, 6:20, 9:20

Sun., Oct. 20

digital 12:15, 3:20, 6:20, 9:20

Mon., Oct. 21

digital 12:15, 3:20, 6:20, 9:20

Tue., Oct. 22

digital 12:15, 3:20, 6:20, 9:20

Wed., Oct. 23

digital 12:15, 3:20, 6:20, 9:20

Cinemark Round Rock

4401 N. I-35, Round Rock, 800/326-3264

Cost for 3-D shows is regular ticket price plus a $3.50 premium. Call theatre for complete March 26-28 showtimes.

Thu., Oct. 17

digital 1:00, 4:00

City Lights Theatre

420 Wolf Ranch Parkway, Georgetown, 512/868-9922

Thu., Oct. 17

9:50am, 1:10, 4:10, 7:10, 10:00

Fri., Oct. 18

9:50am, 1:10, 4:10, 7:10, 10:00

Sat., Oct. 19

9:50am, 1:10, 4:10, 7:10, 10:00

Sun., Oct. 20

9:50am, 1:10, 4:10, 7:10, 10:00

Mon., Oct. 21

1:10, 4:10, 7:10, 10:00

Tue., Oct. 22

1:10, 4:10, 7:10, 10:00

Wed., Oct. 23

1:10, 4:10, 7:10, 10:00

Gateway Theatre

9700 Stonelake, 512/416-5700

Discounts daily before 6pm. Cost for 3-D shows is regular ticket price plus a $3.50 premium.

Thu., Oct. 17

CC/DVS 12:45, 3:45, 6:45, 9:45

iPic Theaters Austin

3225 Amy Donovan Plaza, 512/568-3400, www.ipic.com

Thu., Oct. 17

12:00, 3:10

Moviehouse & Eatery

8300 N. FM 620, Bldg. B, 512/501-3520, www.themoviehouse.com/trails/

Thu., Oct. 17

3:20, 7:00, 10:15

Fri., Oct. 18

3:40, 8:45

Sat., Oct. 19

3:40, 8:45

Sun., Oct. 20

3:40, 8:45

Moviehouse & Eatery - Lantana Place

7415 Southwest Parkway, Building 7, 512/572-0770, www.themoviehouse.com/lantana/

Thu., Oct. 17

8:00, 9:50

Sky Cinemas

13201 US-290, 512/457-0700, www.skycinemas.com

Thu., Oct. 17

10:45am, 1:30, 4:15

Fri., Oct. 18

11:00am, 4:15, 7:00

Sat., Oct. 19

11:00am, 4:15, 7:00

Sun., Oct. 20

11:00am, 4:15, 7:00

Mon., Oct. 21

11:00am, 3:50, 6:35

Tue., Oct. 22

11:00am, 3:50, 6:35

Violet Crown Cinema

434 W. Second, 512/495-9600, www.violetcrowncinema.com

Four-hour parking validation in attached garage with ticket purchase. Reserved seating; bar and cafe on-site.

Thu., Oct. 17

3:20, 9:25

Fri., Oct. 18

11:15am, 1:50, 4:25

Sat., Oct. 19

11:15am, 1:50, 4:25

Sun., Oct. 20

11:15am, 1:50, 4:25

Mon., Oct. 21

1:50, 4:25, 9:20

Tue., Oct. 22

1:50, 4:25, 9:20

Wed., Oct. 23

1:50, 4:25, 7:00, 9:35

Westgate 11

4477 S. Lamar, 512/899-2717

Discounts daily before 6pm. Cost for 3-D shows is regular ticket price plus a $3.50 premium.

Thu., Oct. 17

CC/DVS 11:00am, 4:35, 7:15, 10:00

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More James Gray Films
The Lost City of Z
A futile quest for an extraordinary place

Steve Davis, April 21, 2017

The Immigrant
Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix star in James Gray's latest New York opus, a story about a woman turned out from Ellis Island to fend for herself on the mean streets of New York.

Kimberley Jones, May 30, 2014

More by Richard Whittaker
The Addams Family
Your favorite creepy neighbors are back, and kid friendly

Oct. 18, 2019

Dreamy Visions at the Austin Arthouse Film Festival
Dreamy Visions at the Austin Arthouse Film Festival
Celebrate the avant-garde at AFS Cinema

Oct. 18, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Ad Astra, James Gray, Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle