In this Day Late and Dollar Short Review, we’ll hitch a ride with Ad Astra, the 2019 film starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. This James Gray film received 43 award nominations, ranging from the Golden Lion of the Venice Film Festival to the Beryllium Fruit Bat of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA, which I assume has both the pronunciation and seething atmosphere of dread of its namesake).
The vast majority of these awards were in technical categories. However, a few organizations that were clearly created and staffed by machine-learning algorithms concluded that Ad Astra warranted recognition for its acting and directing. Thus, by extension, the movie’s writing has also been deemed “not scrawled on a stapled pile of hundred dollar bills” by the Rust Belt’s tastemakers.
A brief overview of the premise before we get to the primate-carnage: an astronaut is recruited to fly to the outer solar system to find the mysterious source of “power surges” that threaten the Earth. These surges appear to originate from somewhere in Neptune’s orbit, where super astronaut’s father—who was an even super-er astronaut—was lost some thirty years in the past. Astro-dad and his crew had been dispatched in a generic search for aliens. There is, therefore, a mystery to be solved, great expanses of cosmic emptiness to be crossed, and a father-son reconciliation to be yearned for.
Our main astronaut is Brad Pitt, who stars as astronaut Yogi McBradpitt, a preternaturally calm man—one might say “unflappable” or “carved from the choicest balsa wood.” I shall henceforth refer to this character as “Roy” since the script insists on it, but it suffices to say that frequent mentions of Roy’s low heart rate combine with Pitt’s relentless monotone to convey this character’s inability to be flapped by such things as opening set-pieces plagiarized from Gravity or killer space baboons.
A word about Day Late and Dollar Short reviews: if you expect recommendations, insight, factual accuracy, and/or coherence, I’ve got some bad news for you. Odds are, you’ve already seen or (wisely) chosen to ignore this movie, and all that is left to do is a stream-of-consciousness account of things this movie did to make me angry.
Now, about those baboons…
At the outset of a long space journey, Roy and a soon-to-be-babooned crewmate answer a distress call from a science vessel that appears to be abandoned. They somehow become separated in a moderately sized cylinder. After some suggestive lighting and sounds, Roy finds that his partner has been de-faced by a visibly angry, floating baboon.
It is worth mentioning here that I am all in favor of enraged space baboons. Even the faintest whiff of violent lower primate in free fall is enough to convince me to subscribe to virtually any streaming service (34 at last count). I, J.M. Torgo—who literally has the essence of bad movies coursing through his veins because of an ill-advised childhood experiment that attempted to recreate the Graboid guts from Tremors—am here to tell you that space baboons are like screeching, uncanny catnip to me. And if Ad Astra had consisted of 104 minutes of Yogi/Roy battling them in zero-G, this would be a very different conversation. For several reasons.
Alas, the space baboon chews off but a single face before Roy dispatches it with the power of differential pressure. It’s a moment of inspired stupidity in the midst of nearly two hours of prosaic stupidity. But that is the end of Ad Astra’s singular contribution to cinema. After that, no mas baboons.
Instead, we are treated to multiple instances of Roy participating in automated psychological tests, all of which determine that he is a perfect astronaut-man until (wait for it) he is not. An estranged wife (Liv Tyler, inserted perfunctorily as Mrs. McBradpitt) pops up occasionally as memories of either soft-focus pillow talk or silent ennui. Roy is just so distant, which is literalized by a trip to Neptune and his refusal to vary his vocal timbre.
Let’s not, however, ignore the contribution of Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Roy-papa. Long story short, Roy-papa has lived in a small container orbiting Neptune for decades. Roy misses him (maybe—he doesn’t emote much, as noted) and goes to see him, either despite or because Roy-papa has murdered his own crewmates without the help of lab monkeys.
So why has Tommy/Roy-papa been hanging out 2.8 billion miles from Roy for the last thirty years? Why are people randomly suggesting that there are aliens out there when THEY PLAY ABSOLUTELY NO ROLE IN THE MOVIE? And why are mysterious and devastating power surges emanating from Roy-papa’s last known position: circling Uranus, which is the joke this movie ought to have alluded to at least once.
None of these plottish issues is resolved, except the living at Neptune part, which ends when Roy-papa plunges to a fiery death in the welcoming gases of Neptune, which is far less satisfying than plunging to a fiery death in the welcoming gases of Uranus. This happens mere minutes after Roy arrives after a months-long journey. I feel that writer/director James Gray misses an opportunity to relate to his audience, who by now craves joining Tommy Lee Jones as a charred and dwindling corpse.
Roy flies home–2.8 billion miles home–after fifteen minutes at Neptune. None of this mattered. Not Dad. Not aliens. Not estranged-then-not-estranged wife. I mean, what the Hell were the power surges about? Did Earth just get a new power strip? Why the fuck were there unsupervised baboons in a derelict spacecraft?
Why the fuck weren’t there more baboons?!