Ad Astra ★★★

I feel like I just watched a great movie and a terrible movie laid over top of each other. On one hand, there is a wonderful trip into the void of space here. Ad Astra is such a beautiful immersive experience when we're traveling; things feel colder and more isolating the further we get from Earth. Plenty of segments are visually fantastic, and the film commits to being slow and atmospheric enough to become a bit hypnotizing. It really pulls the audience along for a journey deep into the unknown and is smart enough to never remove the focus from space travel or push the action scenes too hard (even if a few push disbelief a bit). Nailing this isolated journey is hard, and it's commendable how much Ad Astra gets it right.

On the slightly worse side we have the story. It very much is literally Heart of Darkness, but now Kurtz is the main character's dad. There's a bit about toxic masculinity pushing away all emotions or care for relationships and people obsessing over their work to the detriment of all else, which is all fine and good. It feels a little too simple, though. There's not enough real emotional attachment at any time to actually care about these characters, so it remains an intellectual exercise, with really the best it has to offer being "don't neglect other people." No offense, but this is being compared to Solaris?

What really sours it, though, is that this movie won't stop telling me what to think. Again, sorry for calling out comparisons, but any similarity to Terrence Malick would stop at the fact that the character is talking a lot in voice over. In Malick films, the sort of musing happening is very non-literal, it's something that changes the context of the images on screen and makes the film very different by its inclusion. Completely unlike that, Ad Astra has two voice over modes. One is Brad Pitt's character introspecting. This is... alright I guess. It's not the worst, but he could let us know he compartmentalizes his feelings indirectly, without going "Hello, it is me, The Compartmentalizer. I am famed for my compartmentalizing." All of his inward thoughts follow this general pattern.

Even worse is when he just tells us what is happening or what to think. It's best to use examples. There was a moment when he arrived on the moon, I saw the sort of shopping strip and the Applebee's and thought about how that is horrifying but also entirely what I expect, bringing our consumerism everywhere we go. Then the voice over, about 10 seconds later, repeated my thoughts to me. Another time, a man was quickly looking around, making a few nervous ticks, and Brad Pitt announced "He is afraid." It's condescending, covering both stating what is clearly happening and directly voicing all themes. If Ad Astra could go five minutes without worrying that I was going to lose all sense of what was happening, it would be far better.

For all that the downsides really make me want to tear into this for ages, I'm just going to repeat that there was also a good side done really well. It's just a shame about how it got mangled.

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