Review of Ad Astra: Hollywood strives to reach the stars

Summary: Here is a review of Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt and Liv Tyler. It reveals much about Hollywood. It is not entertaining, despite a fine cast and great fx.

Non est ad astra mollis e terris via.” – “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.”
— Said by Megara (Hercules’ wife) in Hercules Furens by Seneca the Younger.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra opens with its deepest moment. Eve McBride (Liv Tyler) walks out on her husband Troy (Brad Pitt). He is not just Brad Pitt but also a big-time astronaut and son of the most famous astronaut. None of that matters. Liv walks out on Troy, just as in the real world Angelina Jolie walked out on Brad Pitt. Ad Astra is picture book story about the nature of masculinity in our America.

Brad plays an astronaut famous for his stoicism. He is focused on the mission, resolute, and imperturbable. Yet he seems fragile, often as if he is about to cry. Brad’s droning, intrusive, and boring voice-over tells us that he is broken and whiny behind that macho facade. Ad Astra is his journey to become a more balanced person. It’s the heroes’ journey for our time, conquering the monster of toxic masculinity to embrace his feminine side.

The writers of Ad Astra copied the structure of Apocalypse Now (1979): the focus on the hero’s internal thoughts (revealed by his monolog), the briefing by generals at the beginning, the journey through the wilderness – marked by senseless battles – ending by confronting a guru father-figure at the end. Since it is modern Hollywood, along the way he will meet many men. Some are incompetent, some deceitful, and one is quite mad. In contrast with them, he will meet two beautiful, sensible, well-balanced women (one a leader) – one white and one Black.

In Apocalypse Now’s Vietnam, soldiers were not heroes. In Ad Astra (set in the “near future”) astronauts are no longer heroes.

This would have been shown as heroic in a 1960 film. Not in As Astra.

Brad Pitt on Mars in "As Astra"

About Ad Astra.

Anyone who has watched YouTube has seen short films like Ad Astra. It has all the tropes: the brutal overkill of the voice-over (telling us rather than showing us), the mimicry of a classic film, the heavy-handed repetition of its themes, the ponderous Psychology 101 pseudo-profoundly, the faux-artistic slow pacing and with much staring at the background. This seems like an 80 million dollar film produced by college students gifted with an all-star cast (Pitt, Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland) and a top-notch special effects team.

The message (there is always a message).

Much of Hollywood’s energy these days goes to attacking masculinity. Books with strong male heroes are fixed to make them broken characters, as Peter Jackson does to Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. “Fraught” relationships with dads are de rigueur. In 2010 (1984) and Interstellar (2014), we follow the dads that left their anguished children. In Ad Astra, we follow the son left behind. There are different rules for moms: in Captain Marvel, a daughter excitedly tells mom to go fight – and perhaps die.

The Ad Astra team is quite open about their intent. In an interview in The Telegraph, Brad Pitt and director James Gray discuss “how their space epic aims to tear apart the actor’s image as an American hero.” Here is the money paragraph.

“I thought Brad would be ideal for Roy given his mythology. Brad is this very American, very masculine figure. Brad is willing to tear that myth apart, and be open to the vulnerability that brings. …That willingness to destroy toxic masculinity within the text of the movie itself.”

That’s a spoiler by the director, telling you about the resolution of the film. Another hint: Brad says “I don’t want to be like my father.”

Liv Tyler does not look like this in Ad Astra. No pandering to the male gaze!

Liv Tyler

Gender Studies looks at Ad Astra.

A staple of critics reviews is dissatisfaction with the role of women in the film. All films must portray full-bore socialist realism with a 40%-40% role for cisgender men and women. Anything else means that the women’s roles are “underwritten” (used so often it must be F4 on the critics’ keyboard).

“And just like that, Tyler (playing Brad’s wife) is there for Roy (Brad), because that’s how women are in movies like this.”
— Review by Steven D. Greydanus in the National Catholic Register.

What kind of wife is “there” when her husband needs her? Apparently not the kind approved of by the National Catholic Register. Steven probably believes that she should have divorced Roy and moved on.

My recommendation

It is pretty on the big screen, but not worth a trip to the theater.
If you see it, I recommend the IMAX version. It is worth the extra money.

For more information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

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The trailer

12 thoughts on “Review of Ad Astra: Hollywood strives to reach the stars”

  1. Not related, but reality.

    I have a friend who was a Police Officer (in Australia) and he a Judo Black belt (Police Team, then) and weight lifter he often drew the Friday and Saturday night Pub fights/ troubles.

    He told me once if he has a choices between a hetero woman, a gay guy or a lesbian, he would take the lesbian as a partner any time. Lesbians who go in the Police are usually butch and strong, if the “male” and have a wife at home they want to go back to. They fight well, but are not fool hardy. Hetero girls are usually waiting for an office job and not often much in a fight, gay guys too often aren’t either. Not PC, but a ten year veterans experience.

    I am sure they will be Hollywood pretty and size 10/12, but the real action Lesbians are often very big girls, in a muscly way.

    1. Just a guy,

      Wow. That’s really off-topic. I’ll reply – then let’s stop this thread.

      “I am sure they will be Hollywood pretty and size 10/12, but the real action Lesbians are often very big girls, in a muscly way.”

      I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 31 years. Very few “butch” lesbians are “Hollywood pretty and size 10/12.” They tend to be the opposite of that.

      1. I did mean in the movies the lesbians will be Hollywood pretty, but in real life they are often just muscly.

  2. When I watched the trailer and saw Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland I thought it was going to be a sequel to “Space Cowboys”

    Imagine my disappointment…

    Your reference to Aragorn from LoTR was apposite from the femininsation perspective. But honestly, there was so much wrong with those three films the psychological surgery performed on Aragorn’s character was just one brick in pile of rubble. I’ve watched all three, hated them all equally and never gone back to them. If you have the time and funds, I can heartily recommend the BBC radio adaptation from the 1980’s.

    1. Steve,

      “there was so much wrong with those three films the psychological surgery performed on Aragorn’s character was just one brick in pile of rubble”

      So true. But I really liked Aragorn (me, in my fantasy life), so the warping of him in the film struck me esp hard.

      “I’ve watched all three, hated them all equally and never gone back to them”

      Personally (these things are subjective), I really liked Fellowship of the Rings. There were some discordant notes, but overall it was excellent imo. Two Towers went off the rails, big-time. And Return was just as bad. They cut out – ruthlessly, systematically – everything that gave the story meaning. And substituted endless scenes of carnage.

      1. “me, in my fantasy life”

        Then you ought to seek out the BBC Radio version. Robert Stephens does a wonderful job of portraying a man who has waited long and endured much, but is certain of his destiny and right to rule and his capability to do so with grace, humility and honour.

        The sort of man you might imagine someone being prepared to give up their immortality for.

        A worthy fantasy me (or you) utterly absent from the film…

      2. Steve,

        I was amazed at the volume of discussion about Peter Jackson’s narrative choices in L of the R – but few mentioned the biggest (IMO) – how he altered the character of Aragorn. Esp odd as he is one of the few deeply drawn characters in the trilogy, and Jackson’s alterations made much of the plot make less sense.

        You point to one that I didn’t see! Jackson’s Aragorn is a nice guy, but hardly someone an immortal elf princess would give up so much for.

  3. Continuing the off track discussion of the LOTR movies, I had a similar experience – I thought the Fellowship was an excellent adaptation and movie, the Two Towers slid in quality into a mediocre action film and the Return of the King felt more Peter Jackson than Tolkien. Great visual qualities, but felt so left down by the expectations set by the first film. The Hobbit trilogy was another example of pretty images telling mostly another story.

  4. Well written review. Thank you. I was getting that vibe from the hype. You moved my probably pass to definitely pass. I heard the “engineering” was good. The physics obviously isn’t. (I have a hard time looking past that stuff when it isn’t fantasy like Star Wars.)

    1. Lonnie,

      Thank you for the feedback. Always appreciated, whether good or not.

      “heard the “engineering” was good.”

      Difficult to do space engineering well. 2001 was one of the few who did it well. No so much in Ad Astra. For example, they make a hazardous trip by moon buggy to from one side of the moon to the other. They could easily have flown in the Moon’s low gravity.

      In Ad Astra, set in the “near future,” they have some kind of powered space drive – far beyond anything we have even in labs. The minimum-energy trip (Hohmann transfer orbit) would take many years (it took Voyager 2 twelve years Earth to Neptune). In it Brad Pitt spent 10 weeks going from Mars to Neptune (~4.1 light-hours). Such a power source would create a new industrial revolution!

      But these technical details are minor compared to the overall weird plot, characterization, and dialog.

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