Despite what your eyes may be telling your brain, this is not a science fiction epic…it’s an allegory. And, as an allegory, it is about 30 minutes too long, though given the story framework James Gray (Lost City of Z) stuck himself with, it is probably about right for hitting all the plot points.
The movie is pretty much a one man show for Brad Pitt (The Big Short). It is told tightly from his point of view and with him narrating his inner thoughts. That narration dominates; the psychology of Ad Astra is the unifying center of the solar system spanning story.
Pitt isn’t alone, but most of the rest of the characters have short scenes or cameos. Only Tommy Lee Jones (Shock and Awe), Ruth Negga (Loving), and Donald Sutherland (The Leisure Seeker) get any added depth. Negga and Sutherland are gone too soon, and Jones’s depth is a very shallow pool.
Most disappointingly for me, the science throughout the movie is fairly weak, or adjusted for convenience. I can forgive the latter, but the former made me itch a bit. And after Gravity, I expect depictions of space to be a little more accurate (at least in terms of the effects of movement and weight).
Certainly this is a pretty film. And it has style and mood. But it isn’t what it purports to be. The movie is a weird cross between Contact and Solaris; a very personal story amidst the isolation of space with the thin framework of the search for intelligent life, all told at a leisurely pace. The truth is, this same story could have been told if Jones had buggered off to Africa or South America and disappeared for 18 years. In other words, there was no scientific center that was necessary to tell this story, which is why it isn’t science fiction…it is simply an artistic choice to frame a question and emotional journey.
If you have an interest in seeing it, do see it on a big screen as it won’t translate nicely to small. But be prepared to let go of what you think it may be about and just go with it.