FILM

"Ad Astra" or How the Perfect Astronaut Saves the Universe

World War Z called: They want their infallible action hero back.

Ad Astra is a technically stunning film.

The cinematography and sound design set a new bar for what an outer space adventure film should feel like. The film cleverly utilizes designs from real-life spacecrafts to shape the "near-future" aesthetic of the Space Corps and blends dazzling lights and sounds to create a believably fantastical world just beyond the stars. If Ad Astra looks a lot like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, that's because they share the same cinematographer (award-winning DP Hoyte van Hoytema). It's like watching a moving painting, and IMAX provides a visual feast.

The plot, unfortunately, is not as impressive. Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a cool-under-pressure astronaut whose heart rate never rises above 80 bpm. He's charming and collected, handsome and capable. He knows how to fly a spaceship, shoot a laser gun, and lead a team. We're told through voiceover that McBride is a tortured soul; his pragmatic, cool-guy demeanor is a mask to hide his internal anguish and resentment. Through flashbacks, we discover he had a beautiful wife (Liv Tyler) who left him. We also learn that his father went missing in space over 16 years ago but has been heralded as an astronaut hero for going further into space than any human before. So when McBride receives word that his father may be alive and connected to a series of shock waves suddenly devastating planet Earth, he takes it upon himself to travel into space to find him.

Pretty cool, right? The plot seems tailor-made to push McBride to the edge of his composure, eliciting feelings that he's been compartmentalizing and forcing him to confront his demons! Except that never happens. Pitt's performance is stellar, tormented and nuanced, but the emotional burden he executes so well never actually plays into the narrative. Instead, what starts out like a solid character piece devolves into just another action movie. McBride gets caught up in an epic Moon rover chase and keeps his composure under enemy fire. He survives a violent catastrophe en route to Mars. Do his emotions ever get the better of him, threatening to sabotage his mission? Nope. He handles all his problems perfectly, always returning in one piece. He never even seems stressed, and there's no voiceover to tell us otherwise.

Rinse and repeat. Trouble pops up, McBride is badass, everything works out. People die around him, but he never gets a scratch, physical or otherwise. His emotions never get the best of him, and he does the right thing at every opportunity. There's a moment when McBride is faced with violence during the climactic scene – the perfect opportunity to have him lose his cool and reveal the inner agony that's been alluded to the whole movie. But he passively tries to de-escalate. Ultimately,he just floats around stoically as the movie takes care of his conflict for him.

It's hard to criticize Ad Astra when it gets so many things right. It's a superb visual achievement, a truly immersive movie-going experience full of fantastic performances. The Moon rover chase scene alone is worth the price of admission. But Pitt's performance is underutilized; and while the story promises character depth, it doesn't seem to be in service of anything greater. It's great that Brad Pitt can still impress us, but I wish he was allowed to enhance the story.

Rating: ⚡⚡⚡/5

Music Features

The "Music Industry Black Out”: Why the Music Stops on Tuesday

Is Black Out Tuesday really "an urgent step of action to provoke accountability and change"?

On Friday, May 29th, as protests ripped across the nation, a message began to circulate through social media, asking that the music industry disconnect from the Internet for a day.

The post called this "an urgent step of action to provoke accountability and change."

This is part of an initiative created by Atlantic Records' Jamila Thomas and Platoon's Brianna Agyemang, who launched it alongside several calls to action. "Tuesday, June 2nd is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week," they wrote. "The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art. Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable. … This is not just a 24-hour initiative. We are and will be in this fight for the long haul. A plan of action will be announced."

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The somber, ambient-folk nuance of the album Carrie & Lowell earned a new gaggle of Sufjan Stevens fans in 2015.

Tracks like "Drawn To The Blood" and "No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross" found the singer processing his sexuality in light of religious and societal pressure and carried with them a solemn introspection. Then came Planetarium, his 2017 follow-up collaboration with James McAlister, Bryce Dessner, and Nico Muhly: an expansive, be it at times lethargic, odyssey of a project that retained none of Carrie & Lowell's signature angst. Steven's contribution to the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack recaptured the haunting aesthetic of his 2015 masterpiece with "Visions of Gideon," but his other two offerings, (one of which was an Age of Adz remaster) rang hollow, with "Mystery of Love" in particular caving under the weight of its cliche narrative. "The rhymes are too neat, the phrasing is too precious...and Stevens' coo is so honeyed, it's cloying," wrote Pitchfork of the song. By now, Carrie & Lowell feels almost like a distant memory, and it feels impossible for Sufjan Stevens to get close again.

In honor of pride month, Sufjan Stevens announced his return with two new songs, "Love Yourself" and "With My Whole Heart," both atmospheric and synth-infused in their own right, but far more grounded than his work on Planetarium. The latter is especially optimistic for a Stevens track, with the singer crafting it as a personal challenge "to write an upbeat and sincere love song without conflict, anxiety or self-deprecation." The track ultimately succeeds and is a welcome departure from the singer's usual, heavy-handed angst. "Love Yourself," which is allegedly based off of a "sketch" that Stevens wrote 20 years ago, is more of a slow-burn, and while the melody is enjoyable, the singer's opaque lyrics leave much to be desired: "Make a shelf, put all the things on, that you believe in," he sings.

Regardless, it is nice to hear the hushed echo of Sufjan Stevens again, and while the two new tracks may still not satisfy Carrie & Lowell fanatics, the tracks paint a clearer picture of who Sufjan Stevens is becoming: a fluid artist whose boundless emotional spectrum has led listeners to question everything from their own sexuality to humanity's place in the universe. A portion of the new EP's proceeds will benefit the Ali Forney Center and the Ruth Ellis Center, both of which fight to end homophobia and child abuse. Ultimately, these new tracks showcase Sufjan Stevens as an evergreen artist who's always believed that his art is part of a higher calling.