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
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.
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