'Ad Astra' Review
September 23, 2019
You may not have noticed, but the 2010s have been a renaissance for space movies. It all started with Gravity in 2013, followed by Interstellar, The Martian, and First Man. The one thing each of these great movies has in common is their ability to tell a story of perseverance and triumph on a universal scale with the bonus of mind-blowing visual effects. Another addition to that list, but not entirely for the same reasons, is James Gray’s Ad Astra.
Set in the near future, a catastrophic power surge travels across the solar system and strikes the Earth, killing thousands. SpaceCom (the new NASA) has tracked down the source and believes it to most likely be from Dr. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), whose last known location was near Neptune sixteen years ago. The doctor’s son, Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) happens to be the most respected engineer/astronaut in the world. Realizing the personal and planetary stakes this mission will have, Roy is recruited by the higher-ups to travel to the surge’s source and destroy it before our planet is wiped out.
James Gray has always been a more high-brow filmmaker that has been able to take big stars and concepts and use them for projects that reach beyond the tropes of the genre. Just like in his previous film The Lost City of Z, Gray here centers the story on a man on a journey, ending with the protagonist discovering more about himself than the destination he set out for.
But don’t worry, the destination here is well worth your time as Gray makes full effect of the two things most scarce in space: light and sound. Hoyte Van Hoytema illuminates every vast beauty through his awe-inspiring photography and Max Richter’s soothingly intimate score perfectly complements the most emotional moments.
Despite centrally being a very emotional film, Gray does liven things up from time to time with a few action set pieces that are both extremely creative and tense. Each one encapsulates the perils of space and the feeling that we humans are way out of our element once we go beyond our atmosphere.
The writing of Ad Astra is what makes this film unique. Having more in common with Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey than the films mentioned in the beginning, Ethan Gross and Gray’s screenplay delivers an introspective and philosophical story that increasingly gets more human as the setting gets more cosmic.
The story is centralized through McBride as we follow his POV through the dangerous mission. The narration by Pitt is used to convey his character’s inner thoughts. Against all norms of narrative storytelling, the narration works for the betterment of the film as it gives us an in-depth view of his perception of the unfolding events.
Gray’s scripts have always had another layer to them. There is always a sense of something deeper underneath that’s slowly coming to the surface throughout the film. Ad Astra is another example of this trend as each line of dialogue or new information learned tends to serve dual purposes and lead to something bigger down the road.
There do end up being a few frayed storylines that don’t get the attention they deserve, but the overall story makes up for that fault by ending up being more than the sum of its parts.
Already having a banner year with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt possibly delivers his greatest performance here. While Hollywood used Pitt’s movie star power to its full potential, here he is at his most subtle and whole. He carries the emotional weight of the film and never holds back or gives too much, leaving with just the right amount of characterization.
Tommy Lee Jones is also great in his supporting role as the father, Clifford McBride. He’s more haunting than Pitt as we see the full effects that decades of claustrophobic space travel can have on the human mind and spirit. Liv Tyler shows up as Roy’s significant other in a small supporting role that, judging by the trailers, was supposed to be a lot more central to the story before being edited down. Reserved more to flashbacks, Tyler gives a more emotionally heavy performance that contrasts with Pitt.
James Gray’s Ad Astra is part of the space renaissance of this last decade. But instead of following in the footsteps of those films it has joined, it charges down its own path and tells a deeply humanistic story on a cosmic level. Make no mistake, this is one of the best films of the year.