To smug or not to smug, that is the question....
Because the grand thing about being a regular film reviewer (not just for Letchworth!) is that you get to watch a lot of films and over time you hope that your awareness of all things filmic is greater, more refined, more something-or-other than the average viewer. Which, as with all such aspirations, is a little bit true, a lot self-interested conceit.
You know a bit more than the general public: but if you don't listen to the enthusiastic amateur you'll miss a good half of what there is to find.
Apocalypse Now - but no Wagner!
And so it was last night, emerging from Ad Astra, the latest space odyssey from director James Gray, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. That, I told myself, may have been, superficially, a movie about space: but the reality is it is nothing more than a thinly veiled remake of Apocalypse Now – itself a mash-up of existential angst derived from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness novel.
Clever Jane! Or at least as clever as long as it took me to check out what other reviewers had said about the film and discover they'd got there first. Mark Kermode, for one, a reviewer I much respect, writing in the Guardian. And the Indy. And, final nail in the coffin, it turns out that Gray himself in an early press conference described the film as a “mash-up of Apocalypse Now and 2001”.
But without the Wagner soundtrack and, for the most part, without the impressive pyrotechnics.
All of which is long-winded way to prepare you for the shock-not-shock revelation that for all its dressing up in the garb of sci-fi and space travel, the real journey that takes place in Ad Astra is inward: a son's quest to find his father and expunge various inner ghosts along the way. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The Threat from Space
Houston, we have a problem. Turns out something bad is happening near Neptune, where daddy McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) led a famous expedition – aka the Lima Project - some years back in search of alien life. Sadly, all died. Or did they?
Because now – the McGuffin that sets McBride junior (Brad Pitt) off on a quest to locate his father – is that whatever is happening OUT THERE threatens to destroy life and civilisation as we know it back on Earth. Anti-matter is involved. Do not inquire too deeply how or why: there is very little about the science of this film that makes sense.
Or plot for that matter.
Which may sound an odd observation from someone who loves sci-fi and cannot wait for the grand finale Star Wars movie, out this December. But there is a difference between the latter, obvious cartoon froth never meant to be taken seriously, and the likes of Ad Astra, which situates the action, under-stated though it may be, in a highly realist surround.
The Darkness Within
So anyways, after meeting the young Roy McBride, who combines misanthropy with daddy issues in equal measure it is off on an intra-stellar quest: Neptune by way of the Moon and Mars. Only Roy, it seems, can send a message from Mars asking father, Clifford, if he is still alive and if so, what the *?!% is he playing at out on Neptune.
Along the way he encounters space pirates and homicidal space monkeys, and has to evade the cloying paternalism of the United States Space Corp. In any other movie this would be played for dramatic tension: yet Ad Astra – despite the Censors warning that it “may contain gore" - is strangely bloodless. It really is all about Roy and his inability to connect and the result, by design or accident – I suspect design! - is next to no tension at all.
Also a plot that makes very little sense. Like, the pedant in me kept asking, why must Roy travel to Mars to send a message? Why not just record the prescribed script back on Earth? Why – since him going off script is a (predictable) plot twist – do they allow him to broadcast live, if sending the exact right message is so important?
And then, after presenting Neptune as the almost ultimate unreachable end point in his travels, is Space Corp able to saddle up a space ship and get it headed off into the beyond in about three days flat?
The issue with Ad Astra is that while it may begin with the search for alien life, it is in truth a study in alienation. And how do you depict alienation? Why, fill the screen with damaged characters (both McBrides) and focus on the inner turmoil!
If you are looking for glamour, action, excitement, forget it. That is not the point here. This is Pitt and Lee Jones as broken be-stubbled characters who have gazed into the infinite and are now scrambling to come to terms with what they have seen. Despite the presence of a handful of other actors on screen, most are eminently forgettable: wallpaper to Pitt/McBride's onward journey.
There is a brief and questionable cameo from Donald Sutherland, whose presence on screen increasingly prompts surprise that he is still going, still making films. And maybe there is some sort of deeper message here. But if there was, I fear I missed it.