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Life, the universe and everything in Ad Astra

19 September, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra

AD ASTRA
Directed by James Gray
Certificate 15
☆☆☆

OOOH, space! Isn’t it big? And doesn’t the idea of such an endless void of nothingness give you the collywobbles?

This much we know – and have been told plenty of times before by sci-fi storytellers.

These basic facts are at the heart of this Brad Pitt-led space adventure, which tries its best to mingle awe-inspiring astrophysics with the wonder of human emotions, making for an essentially slow-paced action film with some “deep” philosophical questions posed.

Don McBride (Pitt) is the chunky heartthrob of a spaceman. He is both so cool his heart rate never goes above 60 BPM, yet so sensitive his clearly distressing split with his wife is recalled in occasional soft focus snippets of a fleeting Liv Tyler leaving door keys on marble worktops.

In a promising opening scene, we watch him clamber out onto a vertiginous space telescope machine, a pylon stretching upwards that is listening for little green people’s chitter chatter.

Then boom! There is a cosmic zap from outer space and we discover that a weird electrical pulse has bashed into Earth, killing a load of people and forcing the survivors into a global resetting of our wi-fi boxes.

After the cosmic ray sends poor McBride tumbling to Earth, he pulls a few weeks of sickies – until Space Command summons him to say he is the man for a mission to Neptune to find the source of the power surge.

McBride is told that his spaceman dad (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared when McBride was but a kid as he travelled into the dark depths, may still be alive – and the cosmic rays could have something to do with him…

You can’t escape the unsubtle references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. And, as with Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse, we are given an internal monologue by the lead in deadpan tones to explain his emotions – a trick that due to the shallowness of his pronouncements does not quite work as they do with the traumatised army captain in a sweaty Vietnam.

Ad Astra is very good looking, drawing on recent design ideas given to us by films such as Gravity, The Martian and Moon. It has a dollop of satire, à la Total Recall. Intergalactic spaceflights are provided by Virgin and include over-priced snacks and pillows when you board a flight to the Moon, while there is some social comment as rotten humans fight for natural resources on other planets because, well, that’s how we roll, right?

It tries hard to include the psychologically terrifying ideas of the endlessness of space, and how minute we are down on planet Earth in the grand scheme of things, with some more traditional Buck Rogers-type action.

But the combination of such strands rub up against each other rather than dovetail.

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