Ad Astra is out now and it’s named in Latin so you know what that means. We’ve had Avengers Endgame and more Star Wars is right around the corner, so naturally it’s time once again for Hollywood’s annual attempt at highbrow Sci-Fi which doesn’t make any money when not done by Christopher Nolan, but which does sometimes ask important questions about the nature of humanity and what to do if we ever meet an angry monkey in space. Wait, what are angry monkeys doing in this movie?
People have said the movie is pretentious which might be a little unfair. It’s messaging and themes are to subtlety what a hammer is to kneecaps. The opening of the film even contains a nice translation of the Latin title, just in case you were put off by not understanding one hundred percent of the name, which is to be expected from a country which still gets the philosopher’s stone wrong. And while I personally like a nice, confusing romp through space, there’s certainly something to be said for an inexplicably simple story about a guy on a secret mission to Mars to send a laser to his dad, who’s shooting antimatter at earth, or just dead, in which, occasionally, there is an angry monkey.
I mean, strictly speaking the synopses have been deliberately vague, which serves the film well because you’ll reach parts of the story and genuinely not know what’s coming next, partly because there’s some three-act structure deconstruction going on. But, essentially the story is just about Roy McBride, a really good astronaut with a not-at-all on the nose heart condition that everybody seems to think is somehow a good thing, heading off into space to find his dad because he might be shooting emps at the inner region of the solar system, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear because he’s meant to be dead.
That simplicity does mean we’re locked into Roy McBride’s perspective for the whole film. If you told me the success of a movie depended entirely on the performance of Brad Pitt and whether or not he could bring this incredibly closed off character to life in a way that creates a sense of sympathy you wouldn’t expect for somebody described as an actual psychopath, I might tell you to go away and continue working on the Ratatouille extended universe, starting with the sequel, Hamburger, but that’s because I forgot just how well he can act. It’s a weird trick; maybe because he’s pretty I forgot that once his credited private chef has stepped out of the shot, the crew have all signed their agreements not to go to TMZ with any hot goss about the Branjelina breakup, and the camera is rolling, he’s actually been acting for a lot for longer than I’ve been alive, and he’s really damn good at it. I’ve seen Benjamin Button so it’s a weird thing for me to forget. Basically, if you want to watch Brad Pitt do capital A Acting for two hours straight, and absolutely nail it, Ad Astra has you covered.
There is a little bit of subversion happening, outside of just story structure. Sci-fi tends to ask very specific questions about the future, and get into stuff like man vs machine, or man vs poop potatoes on mars, maybe woman vs gravity. There’s always a lot of tension surrounding what we are and aren’t capable of. That’s something that Ad Astra sort of just ignores. Can we communicate with Neptune via secure laser? I mean, sure, why not. We can fly there in 79 days, too. It’s never about the limitations of technology – there are none. It’s also not really about the scientific discoveries the film mentions in passing. It’s concerned with who Roy McBride is and what his estranged, dead, space criminal dad means to him. Space pirates and mad monkeys lurk on the periphery, but there’s an extent to which all that sort of stuff just happens to be there.
And my apologies to the people in the cinema with me, for laughing through the segment where some guy gets eaten by a monkey on a spaceship. I just thought that was a really funny way to go. Imagine you worked for NASA, and when you went to somebody’s spouse/life partner/long-time roommate they owed rent to, to tell them their friend had died, and they very reasonably asked how, expecting malfunctioning air-locks, miscalculated trajectories, or maybe even that thing where the oxygen ignites and turns the spaceship into a giant fireball, and you have to tell them to their face: “No, actually Stephen got eaten by a monkey.” For starters, they’d slap you. And they’d be right to do so. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting eaten by a monkey, although I guess if that’s how I go you do now have my full permission to laugh at me. It’s just not the sort of thing people go all the way to outer space for. If I wanted to, I could get eaten by monkeys in my garden. Anyway, the apology is mostly because immediately after that, in a heartfelt and fantastically performed monologue by Brad Pitt, he explains the monkey represents his suppressed rage, brought out in the harsh void of space, or something equally silly sounding when you say it out loud, and that’s what I actually laughed about. It was genuinely good cinema, just done through a super weird lense, involving sudden monkeys in space, so if you want a mood tester to let you know whether this movie is worth it, there you go. This movie is filled with sudden monkeys, by which I mean utterly bizarre things happening which ultimately serve to interrogate Pitt’s character on his quest for Neptune.
It’s not subtle but it is gorgeous, an impressive achievement given that the most expensive thing in any given shot is probably Brad Pitt’s face, and I reckon it’s probably worth sticking around to see where the movie is going with its vaguery and existentialist paranoia. I’m giving the film nine angry monkeys out of 11, with the strict advice not to watch it unless you want a movie that likes toying with you. Also, yes, I’ve been using the word monkey wrong, it is a baboon, and I don’t care.