Ad Astra

Director: James Gray.
Screenplay: James Gray, Ethan Gross.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Loren Dean, Kimberley Elise, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn.

“So many times in my life I screwed up; I’ve talked when I should’ve listened, I’ve been harsh when I should’ve been tender”

Over recent years we’ve actually been quite spoiled in the sci-if genre with the amount of space travel films utilising the current high standard of special effects to realise their vision. Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity was a bit of a game changer but it’s been followed up with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and most recently Damien Chazelle’s First Man in terms our protagonists exploring just as much about themselves as they are the cosmos. Now, it’s the turn of James Gray with Ad Astra and as much as you’d expect that this space/self exploration angle might be getting a bit tired, Gray proves that there’s still mileage left in our fascination with ourselves and our place within the solar system.

Plot: In the near future, electrical surges from space begin to hit the unprotected earth and threaten civilisation. U.S. Space Command suspect it may be the result of a previous project led by Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). However, this renowned astronaut disappeared when on a mission to find artificial intelligence. He was presumed dead but now there could be a possibility that he’s still be out there somewhere in the emptiness of space. His son, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has lived in the shadow of his heroic father but now must travel the solar system to seek the answers to his previous work, the origin of the surge and whether or not his father still exists.

Ad Astra sets its tone from the offset and makes no bones about being a methodical and deliberately paced film. It begins somberly and Pitt depicts his character with a quiet confidence. So composed is his Roy McBride that his heart rate never goes above 80 bpm regardless of the circumstances. This is then proven in an excellent action sequence that sees him plummet to earth from an exploding space station without hardly breaking a sweat. A glacial pace is certainly the film’s intentions but this early moment also showcases its ability for some exciting action set-pieces and, if patience is afforded, these continue throughout the film. One, in particular, that really stands out is a moon buggy chase scene that doesn’t forget the laws of gravity; with unknown hostile pirates in pursuit, the pace of the scene is dramatically reduced but it’s all the more gripping for it. It’s moments like this that are peppered throughout the film and bring a welcome change of tension amongst the philosophical pondering.

It’s a beautifully crafted film and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is nothing less than stunning. His use of light conjures some striking imagery and his eye for a shot adds to the awe and wonder of McBride’s expansive surroundings. The lavish set designs also bring reminders of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s the mission with which McBride has been assigned that’s reminiscent of Capt. Willard’s hunt for the rogue Col. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and it even has Pitt with a similar reflective voiceover. And, like that film, it’s as much about the journey of self-discovery as it is about the actual journey itself.

Many won’t respond favourably to its languid pace but it fitting for mood and atmosphere and capturing the ethereal vibe and added secrecy and intrigue at the heart of the story. This is also complimented by a reserved performance from Pitt. With already strong work in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, it’s been a good year for him. He’s excellent here as a man who begins his journey as a stoic force of calmness only to unravel into an emotionally tormented wreck. It was in this regard that I found the film to share many similarities with Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris (I’ve yet to see the original) in the mental fragility of our protagonist and it’s sense for otherworldly dangers or influences. It also captures that film’s sense of loneliness and isolation which is beautifully evoked by Max Richter’s haunting score.

Verdict: A very meditative and existential space drama that operates with such visual brilliance that – as its title suggests – you expect it to head “to the stars”. And it does. However, what’s most effective is the direction it takes in exploring the human drama at its core. The conundrum surrounding our knowledge of our place in the solar system is just as confounding as understanding ourselves sometimes and it’s in this exploration that both Gray and Pitt succeed in immersing us.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Director James Gray admitted to Empire magazine that he had to compromise with the studio on the ending of the movie to get the film green-lit and even with a major star/producer like Brad Pitt on board they still struggled for years to get it made.

11 Responses to “Ad Astra”

  1. I think this could have been brilliant but it fell flat for me. Others liked it much more than I.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad to see you liked it. You could say I gave it pretty high marks. I’ve seen it twice but I’m really anxious to watch it a third time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Muckers! I’m going to watch this when I can rent it – looking forward to it!

    Boat Drinks!

    Liked by 1 person

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