This week's review comes to us from Yours Truly, General Editor of the APU Cinema blog, Dr. Zach Cheney. He realizes that Ad Astra has been in theaters for awhile, but his intense dedication to teaching (and family) keeps him from seeing new movies as often as he would like.
To me, the posters for Brad Pitt’s recent Ad Astra look fake. One of them, in particular, resembles the kind of poster you’d see for a fictional movie within a movie. Are you tracking with me? See the image above and then the one below to get a sense of what I mean. In the 1995 movie Get Shorty, Danny DeVito plays a version of himself: an actor. At one point, we see a billboard of his character channeling Napoleon Bonaparte in a biopic about the notorious French general. The moment is, along with Get Shorty as a whole, obviously satirical. And that makes it amusing. It’s a more-or-less subtle comment on Hollywood. The billboard pokes fun at DeVito—usually a comedy actor—playing a serious role like this one, getting cast as Napoleon presumably because the military leader is remembered for his shortness. I believe that the subtext is, "Look how funny it would be if Danny DeVito played Napoleon!"
My point is, the above poster for Ad Astra looks kind of like this to me. Brad Pitt looks, well, quintessentially Brad Pitt-like: that easy-on-the-eyes 5 o’clock shadow, that picturesque hair, those Siberian husky-blue eyes. Even by astronaut standards, this guy is handsome. On this year’s 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I’ve seen lots of photos of real astronauts. Many of these images were on display at The Museum of Flight's exhibit of the original Apollo 11 command module I visited in Seattle over the summer. Props to all of those cosmic trailblazers, but they tend not to resemble Brad Pitt. So, the poster made it hard for me to take seriously the idea of Brad as an astronaut, and I worried the film would frame him as a movie star more than it framed him as an astronaut. Basically, it did.
At the same time, Ad Astra was a pleasant surprise. It accomplished more than just being a star vehicle for one of the most recognizable faces in film history. The movie actually has some meat on its bones. It’s not the silly movie-star-in-space kind of thing that we see Julia Roberts in, within the film of Notting Hill. (Like DeVito in Get Shorty, Roberts plays a version of herself in this romantic comedy.) Ad Astra is also not the painfully-bad Apollo 18 (2011), or the much-maligned Battlefield Earth (2000). Rather, it seriously attempts to address not only the real relational problems plaguing fathers and sons everywhere, but also the question of what it is to be human. Specifically, it shows the challenges bound up in relationships and the failures that arise when we our priorities become skewed. The search for extra-terrestrial life that drives the characters of Ad Astra becomes a tool to teach them less about aliens and more about humanity. This was easily the best part of the film, the feature that helped me overlook its failures and appreciate the kernel of truth at its heart.
There’s a divide in science fiction films, especially when they’re set in space, between those that ultimately elevate humanity and the Earth, and those that believe in an otherworldly, non-human utopia. This unfortunate latter category includes movies ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). But the other, preferable group includes everything from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) to Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E (2008) to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Solaris and Wall-E were directed by professing Christians.
What makes these films—even including the somewhat mediocre Ad Astra—better than “masterpieces” like 2001 is exactly the point that Christian critic G.K. Chesterton made at the beginning of his 1925 book The Everlasting Man. He reimagines the idea of astronomers gazing at a small, far away planet, a planet teeming with “very strange plants and very strange animals; and none stranger than the men of science.” He is, of course, referring to Earth itself. This planet, Chesterton says, is the real wonder of the cosmos. And he notes how odd those scientists are who would overlook the beauty and weirdness of this planet by wondering if there is a more beautiful, weirder planet somewhere else. This point is what makes Ad Astra worth watching...that, and a great performance by one of our brightest stars.
Dr. Zach Cheney is Assistant Professor of Screen Studies in the Department of Cinematic Arts. His work centers on the history of film style in post-World War II international cinema. In Spring 2020, he will teach the special topics course CINE 420: History of French Cinema.