Set in the near future, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride who is called upon to establish a communication with his long lost father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a revered figure who long ago led a deep space mission known as “The Lima Project” but has since disappeared and is believed to have killed all others from the project and may even be responsible for a dangerous “surge” that threatens all life on Earth. Travelling to The Moon, Mars and eventually Neptune, Roy attempts to keep a cool head and appears dedicated to carrying out his mission but as certain truths about his father come to light, and as the higher-ups seem to be keeping certain things from him, Roy takes it upon himself to find his father but risks losing his sanity as he continues to undertake his deepy perilous, and highly personal, mission.
While Ad Astra has a couple of nit-pickedy flaws, it is a very impressive and memorable cinema experience – one of 2019’s best so far.
First off, the visual effects and cinematography are sublime and here, Nolan regular Hoyte van Hoytema has outdone himself yet again because he makes Ad Astra a truly stunning spectacle that few films this year will be able to compete with. Starting us off with an impressively dizzying, Gravity-esque disaster sequence set on a seemingly neverending space antenna, the film goes on to amaze with its exquisite visual flair by giving us several aesthetically interesting locations – including our old favourite Mars as well as a fully commercialised Moon, (complete with Applebee’s, Subway and Virgin travel ports) – and then dazzling us with several breathtaking space-set sequences, culminating in some truly beautiful shots of Neptune – a planet we don’t often see in film. Also using lighting and colours brilliantly, the cinematography and visual effects are (if I haven’t conveyed this properly already!) something to behold and even if you don’t connect with the story, characters or themes, it can’t be denied that Ad Astra is a visual marvel, making it essential viewing for the big screen and surely being a shoe-in for the design and visual effects categories at the Oscars.
And going hand in hand with the superior visuals, the film also benefits from an excellently immersive score from Max Richter – a name that’s already being lauded on social media. A score that’s on equal footing with many of the best sci-fi films of this decade, it is successful in building up a sense of dread and tension when required and when the film fully sets off into space, it does well in establishing an otherworldly and ethereal atmosphere as well as conveying a sense of both beauty and loneliness – suggesting that space can indeed be a beautiful place but mostly reinforcing the idea that it’s a vast emptiness in which man is alone. The film is filled with outstanding musical moments (ones that had me desperate to know “who did the music?”, which is always a good sign) and overall, the operatic and highly atmospheric score beautifully complements the visuals and make Ad Astra such a wonder to experience.
The direction from James Gray is also noteworthy because, as it is with the music, he is successful in establishing a moody and menacing atmosphere – particularly in the run-up to the final act because this is where Roy starts to defy orders, going on his one-man mission, and as things start to go wrong and Roy apparently distances himself from his fellow human beings (inadvertently causing some horrible occurrences and going on to slowly lose his calm demeanor and sanity), Gray effectively infuses the film with an atmosphere of uncertainty, loneliness and potential danger, getting us truly lost in the cold vacuum of space and getting us to feel as alone as Roy does. While he occasionally allows the film to veer into oversentimentality, as well as misusing some of the actors and perhaps making it all a bit episodic, Gray gives the film a steady pace and he effectively gives the film a tangible sense of 2001-esque grandeur and importance, building up the suspense and adroitly creating an immersive near-future world for us to get lost in.
Following on from his hugely popular role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt gives us another excellent 2019 performance as super cool astronaut Roy McBride. Starting off as “the guy with the steadiest pulse”, he indeed begins the film with a continually calm and collected demeanor as he dutifully listens to his superiors, delivers numerous psychological evaluations, and deals with various nasty occurrences in a noticeably casual manner – giving us the impression that he’d be the ideal guy to be around in an emergency – but as certain revelations are made, he clearly starts to doubt himself and grows increasingly uncertain as it’s suggested that he no longer believes in the things he says in his psychological reports, going on to succumb to “space madness” during his months-long voyage to the edge of the solar system. In Ad Astra, Pitt expertly commands the screen (as we’ve come to expect from him by now) and with his moody, dramatic (though sometimes intrusive) narration and well rehearsed facial expressions, he makes Roy McBride a deep and conflicted character and Pitt does well in showing the character’s continual inner struggle.
Elsewhere, Tommy Lee Jones gives an equally impressive supporting performance as the unhinged Clifford McBride, managing to appear manic and potentially dangerous without ever really crossing the line into melodrama or overdoing the whole “unhinged former hero with a God complex” bit, Donald Sutherland performs very well in his brief role of Pruitt – the man who accompanies Roy on the first part of his mission – and Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler are also decent in their roles but aren’t given enough to work with to make a proper impression. Natasha Lyonne pops up though, so that’s another win for the film!
As for the negative points, what keep the film from being a true masterpiece, the story is a little thin and it’s one that runs the risk of being forgotten about in time; as “Apocalypse Now in space”, it all boils down to “dutiful soldier goes on a mission to find a revered hero who has lost his mind, losing his own sanity in the process” and although Ad Astra is a bona fide character piece, complete with tried-and-true themes of fathers and sons, as well as humanity’s destiny and whether we are truly alone in the universe (of which this film makes a uniquely pessimistic conclusion not often seen in sci-fi films), it doesn’t have as imaginative a plot as some of the other great sci-fi films of the decade (Arrival, Gravity, Blade Runner 2049, The Martian) and it’s a film that will mostly be remembered for its visuals, music and central performance, rather than its storyline. Lastly, Ad Astra‘s other main flaw is that it relegates its supporting characters to the sidelines too much, instead focusing primarily on just one, perhaps two, main characters, and the major casualty of this is Liv Tyler who simply appears in flashbacks and whose character could easily have been erased from the film entirely as she is just “the (ex) wife who’s waiting for him back on Earth”. The same could also be said of Ruth Negga who admittedly plays a larger part than Liv Tyler but merely helps Roy on his quest and then stays behind; there was potential to turn her into an important supporting character, one who could’ve even accompanied Roy on his voyage, adding a extra layer to the film, but regrettably, she plays too small a part in the feature.
But on the plus side, this film, like The Martian, really demonstrates the importance of having duct tape in space. Very handy for keeping the oxygen in.