For an early anniversary present, my wife surprised me by sending me to attend the Adult Space Academy at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (Yes, much to my surprise, Space Camp is actually a thing, and something 12-year-old me had desperately wanted to attend but thought had long been a missed opportunity.)
For three days, I lived in Habitat One and was immersed in all things space, touring the grounds where much of the US space program developed under Wernher von Braun, training for and completing missions, spinning in the Multi-Axis Trainer, and much more. It was all quite a thrill, and made me feel like a kid again, experiencing and enjoying the wonders and scientific complexities of space travel.
Needless to say, after leaving One Tranquility Base, I was hopped-up on NASA and space travel, and when I saw that Ad Astra was releasing early for download at 4K HDR from the Kaleidescape Store, I jumped at the opportunity.
Virtually since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have frequently looked to the moon and beyond for creative inspiration in their storytelling, and over the years Hollywood has managed to deliver some truly epic films—both factual and fictional—that have revolved around space travel. Ad Astra’s director James Gray said he wanted the film to feature “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie,” so I was hopeful for a film that not only entertained but that nailed the science.
And . . . not so much.
Ad Astra belongs to that increasing number of films that has a real divide between critics and moviegoers, but whereas these disparities are usually with audiences preferring the film to critics, Ad Astra received a Rotten Tomatoes score of 84% and just a 40% audience score. So, who’s right?
I have to side with the audience here. Ad Astra is such a slowly paced, agonizingly nonsensical, trying-so-hard-to-impress with its self-importance movie that I occasionally started questioning whether it was actually a brilliant film and I was just too dense or emotionally stunted to understand or appreciate it. Then there would be things like Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) droning expository voiceovers, lunar rovers being attacked by a group of space pirates (which, I guess, are a thing now), or random rabid space baboons that take over research stations and lie in wait to attack that I felt my disdain was fully justified. I hung in there through all 123 minutes waiting for some big resolution or enlightenment to drop on me and then . . .the end credits appeared.
In reading some of the critics’ reviews, I almost felt like I had watched a completely different movie. This was no transformational, emotional journey. Instead Ad Astra was so plodding and confusing it felt like a script that had gone through numerous writers and studios, with things happening that made no sense whatsoever.
And that “most realistic depiction of space travel”? Yeesh. The science in this film is virtually non-existent to the point of being insulting. (If you’d like a thorough breakdown of all the physics problems with Ad Astra, take a look at Bill Hunt’s “two cents” at the Digital Bits.)
Pitt has been widely praised for his acting in this film, but that wasn’t enough to connect me to his character or really care about what was going on. Most times McBride, who is known for keeping a cool, steady, slow pulse rate regardless the situation, and who has to regularly take Blade Runner 2049-style psychological evaluations, seems detached or disinterested, just a drone going about his duties. The film also features Tommy Lee Jones as Pitt’s long-lost, marooned-on-Neptune father, H. Clifford McBride, Donald Sutherland as a retired military colonel re-tasked to chaperone Pitt, and Liv Tyler as McBride’s (ex?) wife, Eve, who I don’t believe utters a single word in the film and is only shown in brief flashbacks and memories. Also, the actor playing Lt. General Rivas (John Ortiz) looks so much like a totally miscast Fred Armisen that I found his scenes to be a bit distracting.
So, assuming you are going to watch Ad Astra regardless of what I or anyone else says, are there any redeeming factors to screening the movie at home?
Filmed in ArriRaw at 3.4K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, images are mostly terrific looking. The film uses different color palettes for different environments, with scenes on earth looking very film-like and having greens, blues, and
neutral tones, with scenes on the moon being much sharper and having a silvery-white look, Mars a dusty, rusty orange-red, and Neptune a beautiful gleaming navy-blue.
You definitely can’t knock the film’s visual effects, and the large set pieces such as the ginormous earth antenna, the interiors of space crafts, and the moon-buggy chase all look great and show terrific attention to detail and set dressing. Closeups reveal tons of detail, such as the twist in the cabling used on the large antenna, the weave of fabric on Pruitt’s jacket, the woolen texture of Pitt’s army uniform, or scratches and blemishes on the astronauts’ helmets.
There are a lot of shots off into outer space, and blacks are deep and clean. HDR is used nicely to punch up the rocket engines during launches as well as some of the bright displays and instrumentation aboard the ships.
20th Century Fox maddeningly refuses to supply Kaleidescape with the object-based Dolby Atmos soundtrack found on the UltraHD Blu-ray disc, but even still, the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track here offers plenty to enjoy, especially if combined with an upmixer like Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X. There are lots of little atmospheric sounds that immerse you in the action, such as air hissing
when hatches open and close, the creaking and groaning of the antenna structure, devices giving off electrical buzzes and crackles, or a variety of PA announcements.
Dialogue is generally clear and easy to understand, though there were times when lines spoken inside of helmets sounded muffled and unclear. There are also some low, steady deep bass notes near the end that will test your media room for any loose items that rattle.
Ultimately, I was disappointed with Ad Astra and doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It was slow, unentertaining, and never seemed to find its footing. The film is summed up by one of the best IMDB-user reviews I read, “Brad Pitt goes to Neptune, but this script comes from Uranus.”
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.