Voice-overs hardly ever work. They crop up in films from time to time: usually with the protagonist narrating events and providing backstory. They were particularly popular in the first few decades of talking pictures, and then gradually fell out of favour – except when used, as in Ridley Scott’s theatrical version of Blade Runner (1982), to replicate the films of that period. With the decline of the voice-over came the dominant lesson for all narrative filmmakers: show, don’t tell. It is a lesson that seems pretty well-proven, as any Blade Runner fan will tell you. Freed from Harrison Ford’s leaden narration, both the director’s and final cut absolutely sing. It is a lesson director James Gray should have learned before making his 2019 science fiction drama Ad Astra. Narrated throughout by a deadpan, largely emotionless Brad Pitt, he takes an imaginative two hour epic and transforms it into what feels like a three hour bore.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut and son of space exploration legend Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). The elder McBride vanished close to three decades ago, when a mission to Neptune appeared to catastrophically fail. Now an unexplained phenomenon is affecting the Earth and threatening to destroy the entire solar system – and the source of the phenomenon indicates Roy’s father may still be alive.
Ad Astra wears its influences openly: a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey here, a chunk of Apocalypse Now there. Roy’s journey ‘up the river’, as it were, is probably the most obvious lift – and likely the source of Gray’s choice to narrate his interplanetary journey. What works with Martin Sheen in Vietnam, however, does not work with Brad Pitt on a flight from Earth to the outer solar system. His character has an annoying tendency to state the obvious as if the audience is stupid, or to eliminate any doubt in moments of ambiguity. I am generally resistant to give films star ratings, but in this case it makes it easier to explain that the voice-over is so tedious as to rip a full star off an otherwise four-star epic experience. It feels like the equivalent of a painter completing their masterpiece by punching a fist through it.
This is all a deep shame because, narration aside, Ad Astra is a remarkable piece of work. It looks absolutely glorious thanks to strong design and Hoyte van Hoytema’s superb cinematography. It has an excellent and evocative musical score by Max Richter. The cast is great, including Pitt, and features strong supporting work from industry stalwarts like Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland. The world-building is strong and believable, and the screenplay is smart and filled with tension. The film particularly excels in its turning its big-picture philosophical questions into an emotional story about a son missing his father: it makes the theoretical personal, and gives a face and a voice to otherwise abstract ideas.
This should be a critical slam dunk. It would be too – if it were not for that film-breaking incessant narration. One can admire the ambition, but one must also mourn the damage done in the way it was realised.