Review - 'Ad Astra'
Ad Astra is exactly my type of science fiction. It’s a film that portrays space-travel and grand-scale sequences through a realistic lens and pairs it with an intimate father-and-son story. The balance is pulled off perfectly and director James Gray is constantly introducing new and exciting concepts at every turn.
Set in the not-too-distant future where space-travel is more akin to how we currently engage with air-travel, we follow Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who has recently learned that his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) might still be alive somewhere in the vicinity of Neptune. With the fate of the world potentially hinging on Clifford, Roy is tasked with a bold mission to track him down.
There’s a moment early on in this film where I knew that I was watching something truly special and unique. Roy boards a space ship to the moon, and it’s not treated like a huge momentous occasion, but as if it is nothing new, and he just happens to have some business to attend to, you know, on the moon! There’s even a stewardess on board and other passengers casually minding their own business as they tuck in for the flight. Gray makes something revolutionary when compared to current day limitations seem routine, which is exactly how it would be. That doesn’t sound compelling on paper, but it’s such effective world-building and I couldn’t stop admiring the steady hand and consistent restraint implemented throughout every scene to ensure that this came off as an authentic experience. A weaker director would bask in the awe of each set-piece, nudge the audience obnoxiously when a new piece of technology is used, put the special effects on a platter and then proceed to shove them down your eye sockets at every turn. Not here, the world (or solar system) of Ad Astra is a convincing, living, breathing ecosystem that never feels like it was set up to be filmed, yet is cinematically enthralling all the same.
I also admire how much this film makes me think about how this near-future actually operates. This matter-of-fact approach to space travel is further emphasized in a later journey from the Moon to Mars. Seeing Roy casually walk through a security checkpoint on Mars, without so much as a wide-eyed gaze at something he had never witnessed before really makes the brain percolate and think about how civilization got to this point, and what the plans are for the future.
It’s not all a walk in the park for Roy though, Ad Astra’s narrative does eventually take the audience to a point where we catch up with Roy and journey into uncharted territory together, and that’s when the film takes a turn, becoming a more personal story as Roy is forced to contend with his father problems, not to mention the isolation and vastness of space. Speaking of which, Gray’s depiction of space itself is fascinating; it’s a place that is on one hand bleak, empty, and devoid of life, and on the other, it’s a wondrous, beautiful arena that is worth risking everything in order to discover its secrets.
As I hinted at earlier, this isn’t just a film about space exploration, it’s also one of self-discovery told through a complicated father-and-son relationship. This movie works on both a micro and macro level. Its one of the grandest space adventures while also one of the most intimate. The further Roy journeys from home and the closer he gets to potentially finding his father, the more he changes. I won’t spoil the end, but the film’s message is a profound one, even if it’s made fairly obvious by Roy’s frequent voice-overs, which didn’t bother me, but also didn’t really need to be in the film.
Speaking of Roy, Brad Pitt does a lot with a little here. Pitt is understated and hardly speaks throughout the film, that is, unless you factor in his inner monologues. Roy is a man that doesn’t feel anything, and he blames much of that on his father who abandoned their family to go on the unprecedented mission and was thought to be dead until the events of the film. The transition Pitt goes through in this movie is subtle, but so much more effective and believable. Tommy Lee Jones, who I will not reveal the extent of his role here, also turns in a solid performance as Roy’s father. Is it all performed through dated video messages? Is he alive or dead? You’ll have to watch and find out…or spoil that for yourself on another site. Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland also make brief but memorable appearances, but they really are just icing on the cake of what truly is Brad Pitt’s one-man-show.
It would be a crime not to mention this film’s visual aesthetic along with the beautiful score composed by Max Richter. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also brought his talents to Christopher Nolan’s own space adventure, Interstellar, deserves a fair share of the credit for this movie’s look-and-feel. The framing and color pallet throughout the entirety of this film are simply jaw-dropping and gorgeous. The commercialized moon station with nearly black-and-white landscapes surrounding it, the orange-red, sand-blasted Mars outpost and finally the deep blue hues of the lonely and silent Neptune. It’s all so well-realized and beautiful to behold. On top of the stunning visuals, Max Richter accentuates the visual storytelling with a stirring and emotional score that goes from esoteric soundscapes to sweeping swells that crash like violent waves. It’s a perfect marriage of substance and style.
I’ve been waiting for a film like Ad Astra for quite some time. It’s movies like these that re-affirm for me that science fiction, when done correctly, is one of the best mediums in which to tell stories. What Director James Gray has done here is extraordinary. This is a rare, un-compromised vision on a massive scope, and so far, it’s my favorite film of the year.