Just the title of this week’s blockbuster release:Advertisement Astra, Latin for ‘to the stars’ – doesn’t say much about what the film is about. The trailers haven’t done much to clarify, promising everything from family drama to violent car chases on the moon.
Not a single detail offers much clarity. The film is co-written and directed by James Gray, whose films tend to be on the critically acclaimed, audience-obscure end of the spectrum and set in realistic versions of the present. Still, this one is clearly set in a sci-fi future and is dominated by huge Hollywood figures, including Jones, Pitt and Donald Sutherland.
The film holds together much better than the description suggests. While there’s plenty here to nitpick, the film offers an interesting vision of the future and a plot that puts the focused human drama at the center of that future. What follows is a review that will try not to spoil anything that hasn’t already been revealed in the trailers.
The first family of space power
The film revolves around Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride, an officer in a military organization who appears to be a descendant of the US Space Force. McBride is a highly respected officer in his own right – the film opens with him narrowly escaping death on the job – and the son of one of the great explorers of the solar system (Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride) who was lost on an expedition to the outer planets.
The disaster that sets the film in motion is related to that expedition—and suggests early on that Clifford may not actually be lost. The military sends Roy on a trip to Mars to make contact. What follows is a journey both into space-time and into the equally treacherous world of McBride’s own mind. The first gives the film an episodic quality as each step of the journey introduces new environments and characters. That propels the latter forward, as those steps reveal more and more about Clifford. This complicates Roy’s view of himself, which developed in part due to his father’s absence.
The episodic nature of the journey, along with the growing unease it creates, draw comparisons to Apocalypse Now unavoidable. But Advertisement Astra is exceptional in how many other movies it instantly evokes (as opposed to having those parallels to watch later). Pitt leaving Earth? 2001† The chaos leading to a moon chase? Fury Road† Even Pitt’s emotional journey, usually conveyed by him staring emotionlessly as he processed things, was reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s performance as Neil Armstrong in first man†
This is not a bad thing; these are all excellent movies in their own way, and Advertisement Astra calls them instead of copying them. There is also enough happening that is unique that this feeling does not seem intrusive.
The fictional universe in which this world takes place is somewhat closer to the present than to something like the vastness† Humans are a permanent presence on the moon and a foothold on Mars, but the outer solar system hasn’t seen our presence since the elder McBride’s vanished expedition. Transport is primarily provided by rockets that look like larger versions of some of the hardware we use, complete with tethered boosters that drop during the journey to orbit.
Nit pickers beware
The filmmakers clearly made an effort to get some of the physics right, despite large parts of the film set in the minuscule gravitational pull of interplanetary space. There is also a remarkably consistent world build. Some of the space flight procedures in the film are clearly derived from lessons learned from the elder McBride’s lost mission, but that only becomes apparent when we learn more about the mission halfway through the film.
Despite this concern, there are enough glitches here to drive nitpickers crazy. It appears that the rockets use chemical propulsion as standard. But somehow they get humans to Mars in a few weeks and to the outer planets in a few months. There appears to be a huge underground reservoir beneath a rocket launch site on Mars, the presence of which has remained unexplained. Rocket launches don’t always flatten rocket occupants against the nearest seat or wall.
There are also a few quirks in the plot itself. The writing is excellent as it generally makes clear what motivates the characters. But there is not always a clear logical connection with the actions to which those motivations lead. The character played by Ruth Negga, for example, has a history intertwined with Pitt’s, but it’s not clear why that history would motivate her actions here.
Again, these things won’t dominate the viewing experience unless they bother you. For those who can put niggles aside, there’s a lot to do Advertisement Astra† The acting is uniformly excellent, and the immersive, fully-cooked special effects allowed for some really standout scenes. Perhaps more importantly, by the middle of the movie, I really wanted to see how things would turn out. And just as importantly, the results surprised me.