Ad Astra Review – The Search for the Unknown and the Unattainable in Space

Directed and co-written by James Gray, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, an astronaut dedicated to his job and willing to complete missions by any means necessary. When his lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) becomes connected to catastrophic power surges across the solar system, McBride is tasked with attempting communication to his father out in the furthest reaches of space.

It’s always fun seeing a film without knowing anything about it. All I knew of Ad Astra was Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones were in it and space was a location. That’s it. You can imagine my pleasant surprise at what the film really is. Perhaps it’s because I’m willing to watch something meditative and reflective on themes rather than overt action or emotion, but Ad Astra is the kind of space movie experience I crave. This idea will also disappoint or outright annoy some audience members, probably expecting something akin to Interstellar’s epic scale of physics or the white-knuckle thrills of Gravity. Be warned: Ad Astra has more in common with Solaris and “Heart of Darkness” than any other astronaut film you could think of.

Director James Gray seems rather preoccupied in his films with the stories of those searching for unknown, unattainable things. It’s the American Dream and love in The Immigrant, or an ancient city in the Amazon in The Lost City of Z. This idea is now the most present in Ad Astra, a story of a man going further than anyone could ever travel to find his lost father, come to terms with his sins, and attempt a reconnection on a human level when the man himself feels little humanity at the best of times. James Gray is approaching space travel and the idea of our near-future on a purely psychological basis, theorising what we will be like if we continue outward, but we never deal with what we leave behind.

Imagine, for instance, that mankind has progressed further out into the stars. We’ve created far more than one space station orbiting the planet, we have a few moon bases, one underground one on Mars, and we have sent people out as far as Neptune to look for intelligent life. It sounds utopic, with jobs for all on different planets, but we kept stretching our fingers out to grasp the potential of space, and never got a grasp on our problems. Pollution is still occurring, globalisation, commodification, violence, and above all a rejection of emotion in the workplace in the fear of compromise. The near-future is just the same as our present, except shinier and now with Moon pirates.

Pitt’s McBride is a microcosm to these themes of emotionality, masculinity and loss of humanity in the face of unyielding darkness. Pitt plays him as straight and true as you would expect most astronauts to be, except worse because he’s doing far more than any astronaut you’ve seen. The idea behind his character is that his heartbeat has never jumped up beyond 80 bpm during missions. This reputation makes him highly valued in Space Command, but it’s a burden he has to hold when faced with danger everywhere and the idea of actually talking to his lost father. His life is scrutinised to the nth degree, and you have no idea how damn good Brad Pitt is at playing this. The struggle to be unemotional, to be this strong idol of a man, it’s played so perfectly and so delicately, never being too much or too little. When emotion does strike his face, it’s like a hammer to the bells of the heart, big and sweeping in comparison to nothing before. Think of Ryan Gosling in First Man and you’re 90% there.

If you have happened to glance at James Gray’s previous films, you’ll see that upfront they are beautiful to look at. Ad Astra was shot by Interstellar and Dunkirk cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who outdoes himself here. Look at the opening few seconds, as the camera (undoubtedly virtual but it still counts) pans across the distant sun in space, all colours of the rainbow shining through (scientifically accurate if you look it up), the briefest glimpse of Brad Pitt’s face in blue (hint), it’s all you’ll need to be hooked into the unrivalled beauty of Ad Astra. Not only is it glorious 35mm, bleeding colour and life into every frame, but look at how Gray and van Hoytema collaborate on strange light sources in scenes, informing location and the image itself. Interstellar and Dunkirk were heavy-hitting marks on the cinema landscape in terms of scale and intricate placements of the camera, but Ad Astra is a wild and experimental dive into what van Hoytema can do when seemingly given free reign.

Ad Astra is not perfect. It has deeply-rooted scientific and character flaws that held my overall experience away from transcendence. I cannot get into specifics of the film’s physics flaws as they are in spoiler territory, but just know that as much as James Gray is wanting his film to be an accurate depiction of space travel, he forgets about basic spatial movement enough to just do something for the sake of plot rather than reality. What struck me more as an odd feature was to have Brad Pitt be the main star of the whole film and then have fantastic actors like Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland relegated to important yet ephemeral roles was strange. Also the monkeys were just plain dumb.

I left the theatre perplexed, riveted, challenged, moved, scared. The questions the film asks compared with the answers it gives is just deeply unsatisfying, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t thoroughly satisfied with the film itself. It leaves you feeling hopeless in the universe, like your life on this blue planet might not even be worth it. What is the point? What if life beyond our solar system doesn’t exist? What are we supposed to do? What would that do to our psychology? Even with little hints at future man’s relationship with God, this is mankind losing its grip on its place in the universe when it’s come so far. Roy McBride is losing his grip on his own place as he goes deeper and deeper into space. Ad Astra has glaring flaws and uneven execution of space travel, but does leave you thinking, as long as you pay attention. Brad Pitt gives a career-highlight performance, it’s pretty great to see Tommy Lee Jones again, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is marvellous, and Max Richter and Lorne Balfe’s tone-heavy emotional score underpins everything with this looming emotional weight. James Gray wanted to tell a story of father and son and existentialism within the lens of a space movie and succeeded admirably for the most part. It doesn’t rate high against the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey or its closest narrative counterpart Apocalypse Now, but Ad Astra is built of psychological dread and eventual equanimity. Neptune has never looked more beautiful.

Director: James Gray

Cast: Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones

Writer: James Gray, Ethan Gross

Christopher John

Christopher John is an emerging flim critic based in Perth and primarily writes for The Curb. He is a double-degree graduate of Edith Cowan University in Communications and Arts, and creates various flim reviews and video essays on his YouTube channel "Christopher John". Christopher has published online work with ECU's Dircksey magazine, Taste of Cinema, Pelican Magazine and Heroic Hollywood. His first love in flim is Star Wars, his newest love is Akira Kurosawa, and hopes his future love will be Tarkovsky and Studio Ghibli (he's getting to it).

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