Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.
Space exploration has always had the potential to be as powerful and inspiring a storytelling tool as few others can be. The mystery and adventure of journeying out into the cold vastness of space has led to beautiful tales of introspection into the human soul, mind and resilience.
2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, Solaris, Gravity, Sunshine, Moon all use space as a jumping point to look into our own nature and the acceptance of our place within this universe. They have also stood as grand achievements in filmmaking within one of the most flexible genres which is science fiction.
Ad Astra can now be included in that list.
Director James Gray’s film is a hopeful story about the search of intelligent life, the acceptance of our place within this universe and our future in it told through the damaged relationship of a father and his son; a son who is fearful that he is condemned to repeat the same mistakes.
A fusion of the visual styling of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the structure of Apocalypse Now is not something that some people will find entertaining, yet Ad Astra is not looking to entertain you as much as it tries to challenge you. Yes, this also means that it is slow and methodical in its approach and may test your patience at times but it’s well worth sitting through if you can.
However, this is not to say that the film is devoid of excitement, tension and thrills as Gray presents several nail-biting and exquisitely set up action sequences from an early scene involving the dangerous failure of a routine check up on a massively large complex to a Mad Max style chase through the moon.
Brad Pitt has had one hell of a year so far with Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and now this feature, but whereas the former presented Pitt in his purest “cool” and iconic form, here we have one of his best performances in years.
Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland also have small yet memorable roles, the first as his famous father who unwittingly sends him on this journey and the second as a father figure who accompanies him and attempts to be his moral compass. But this is through and through Pitt’s show.
His astronaut Roy McBride is a fascinating protagonist as an emotionally distant man who has been haunted by the shadow his father’s accomplishments have cast over him, and who is now forced to travel the solar system to contact him in hopes of saving our solar system. Pitt perfectly showcases the pain and anger that is simmering within him through the smallest of tics and gestures yet shows a cold and calm exterior that slowly unravels as he goes deeper into his mission.
Gray once commented that they would show “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.”, a claim he now regrets making. That goal was moved from “realistic” to “plausible”, now treading a fine line between science fiction, science fact and science fantasy and the film is all the better for it as this is done in favour of serving the story’s emotional core first and realism second.
Outer space allows filmmakers the opportunity to play with a diverse visual language unlike most other settings. This opportunity does not go to waste with the gorgeous cinematography from the Academy Award nominated DP Hoyt Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Spectre and Dunkirk). It’s difficult to be distinct in this genre but Gray and Hoytema make mesmerising use of colours and framing to give us some of the best shots of the year an a movie that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Such heavy themes and breathtaking visuals are supported by a beautiful score from composers Max Richter and Lorne Balfe (who continues proving that he is much more than a Hans Zimmer clone with this and his fantastic soundtrack from last year’s Mission Impossible: Fallout) with Richter in charge of the pictures emotion and Balfe its excitement.
If there is any downside it is perhaps the narration by Brad Pitt which to me felt more like a studio note rather than the original intention or a necessity as the actor’s strong performance would have been enough to transmit its ambitious ideas to audiences.
Ad Astra demands your full and undivided attention as a thoughtful, emotional, mind bending journey that takes you from the vast reaches of space to the deepest corner of the human soul, full of visually striking imagery and inspiring ideas which rests on the shoulders of a powerful performance by Brad Pitt.