Voice Over in Film – Ad Astra

The gloriously surreal space epic Ad Astra is half a great movie ...

Ad Astra finally showed up on HBO Go.

I happen to have a thing for science fiction. Seems to me that science fiction has these two routes: one is the more adventure-y kind, with explosions and fight scenes and laser blasts. Space opera I suppose.

The other is always a far quieter and more introspective kind like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the role of the science fiction is meant to speak to our problems of the human condition.

Ad Astra explicitly chooses the latter position, but it achieves this painstakingly, in an overwrought way, thanks to the paradoxes in Brad Pitt’s character. Roy McBride is the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a famous exploratory astronaut who went missing in his mission to search for extra-terrestrial life. Years later, electro-magnetic pulse waves scour across Earth, affecting our technology and the future well-being of our species. Roy is charged with going out to Mars in order to send a laser propelled message to the outer reaches of the solar system, in order to communicate with his long lost father, who is believed to still be alive. Perhaps by contacting his father at the station outside Neptune, where the pulses are believed to emanate from, he can save the human race.

One reason Roy is chosen is obvious: he is his father’s son. But another reason is his cool, calm, and collected demeanor. Repeatedly the movie shows Pitt giving lines with barely an inflection, who reacts to advancements of love and romance in about the same way he reacts to shootouts on the surface of the moon. “Is it true your blood pressure has never gone above 80?” one such interviewer gives. The tone of the movie follows the tone of Pitt, which is that the epic is dialed back, calm, with long shots of stations and planets. This is 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is Blade Runner.

The problem with the movie is that it was not confident in going all-in with the tone, and here is where we come to the topic of voice overs. I myself happen to be okay with characters speaking over the action of the film when it is drastically important that we get a compelling reason to. Fight Club is an excellent example. The voice over does several things in the movie. First, it addresses the themes of the consumerism drawn out of the 1980s and 1990s that the characters fight against. Second, it separates the character from himself, which is (for anyone who has seen the film) sort of the whole point.

But too often voice overs are a crutch rather than a feature, and Ad Astra has voice over that does the opposite of what it’s meant to do. Liv Tyler plays Pitt’s lover, and it is abundantly clear that she experiences the literal and metaphorical distance of being a partner to an astronaut. In fact, one of the themes of the movie that is made clear in heavy-handed voice over in the end is the power of closeness in human relationships. The movie had a real chance to express coldness in Pitt, and his silence and calm could have unnerved other characters. Instead, we get the opposite. Each scene is riddled with Pitt’s voice over. We have a closeness to Pitt that we never should have had. Instead of creating an arc where Pitt is slowly worn down, where he becomes passionately indebted, he realizes, to the relationships of his life, to Liv Tyler and to his father, we instead have Pitt speaking to us about his perceptions of calm compared to other characters. We get his frustration of being used for his relationship to his father. “God damn them,” he says.

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Now I understand that this is a polarizing issue. In the history of science fiction films, one cannot help but mention that the original Blade Runner suffered from this conundrum as well. The 1982 theatrical cut included voice overs of Harrison Ford as Deckard, some thirteen in all, while the director’s cut in 1992 removed them. At least I think that is right. I encourage you to go to the Wikipedia article on this to clarify for yourself, as the whole thing is maddeningly complex for someone who did not live through those edits, adjustments, and reinventions. Some people swear by the voice overs, whereas I have not heard them and can do very much without them.

jessica chastain | 121 Days: One to One.

Terrence Malick has used voice overs in such a way as to create a new meaning for them. Since The Thin Red Line, Malick has created a language of film that suggests a closer relationship of film to consciousness. Voice overs, and even images, are not something we can be sure exist in reality, as it is known, but bounce back and forth from imagination and dream. Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life for example is seen flying up and down, as she flutters like an angel majestically over the camera, from the perspective of what we believe to be the protagonist, Jack. Voice overs contain asides about how Jack’s father lies, or how Jack pleads with God to kill his father, while displaying an image of a flat wall painted in matte green. Malick suggests in his filmmaking philosophy that there is a much larger separation between reality and our perception of it. He is acutely aware of something perhaps that Donald Hoffman discusses in his book The Case Against Reality. Malick uses voice over as a tool along with the cinematography to create a language for the viewer, to win them over to a new style of thinking.

There are plenty of fascinating ways to use voice overs, but what I want to suggest here is that Ad Astra not only did not use it correctly, but also used it to the exact opposite of its intention. If you want us to feel distant from an alien and calm astronaut whose capability may make him an excellent explorer, but a terrible companion, voice over is not the way to do it.

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