James Gray's Ad Astra is a visceral experience and an unrelenting journey into darkness and the unknown. Brad Pitt gives a cold, but enduring performance, while Gray's direction utilizes all talents involved to capture a truly unique and engaging sci-fi experience.
James Gray‘s Ad Astra is this year’s sci-fi think-piece, feeling like a hybrid between Alfonso Cuaron‘s thrilling Gravity and the meditative work of Terrence Malick, focused on discovery of one’s self and our own purpose among the cosmos. I’ll be as upfront as possible when I say that Ad Astra isn’t for everybody, but those that do find solace in this film are going to marvel at its lifeless beauty, which is almost always haunting, yet impossible to look away from.
Sometime in the near future, the space race has been reinvigorated, with colonies on Earth’s moon and even Mars. This journey was led by H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a scientist and astronaut that led his team out near Neptune, in search of life.
It’s been sometime since we’ve last heard from H. McBride, with the crew failing to respond to communication packages sent, thus leaving them stranded out beyond our reach.
Now, his son Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has grown up in his shadows, without a father figure or sense of understanding of how human connection works. He too is a successful astronaut and one that can keep his heartbeat steady and his mind clear and focused on the mission at hand.
He functions this way, cold and lifeless, not out of guilt or regret, but out of a lack of empathy towards the ones he cares about. He’s self-aware of the decisions he’s made and the mistakes he’s survived, but uninterested in fixing them and instead puts all of his time and efforts into fixing the world.
This makes his new mission priority number one as a mysterious power surge threatens our world and way of life. This power surge has been traced to somewhere near Neptune, which leads NASA and the government to believe that Roy’s father is still alive and perhaps has lost his way.
Roy is sent to attempt to regain communication with his father, not just for his own satisfaction, but for the fate of the world and our known galaxy.
James Gray‘s Ad Astra is a complex, yet sprawling epic that spreads out far across the cosmos, yet is ultimately about a man and his father. Gray uses the empty void of space to symbolize the feelings of Pitt’s Roy. The film’s journey brings Roy to an obvious, if not frustratingly dumb conclusion.
We spend all of this time looking to the stars for life or purpose, yet we fail to appreciate what we already have and to learn how to live with ourselves and those around us.
Of course, there’s plenty more to find while digging deeper into Ad Astra, but I must say that those final 30 minutes left me absolutely disappointed, especially factoring in everything that came before it. Ad Astra is a good film, one shot with absolute beauty by director James Gray and his DP Hoyte Van Hoytema — this truly feels like the merging of Cuaron’s Gravity and any one of Terrence Malick‘s films, because it does have such a distinct visual approach that is bleak, yet discoverable.
Gray doesn’t waste a single penny capturing the futuristic Earth landscape or the space travel that feels so real and lived in. I love the attention to detail and the constant reflective nature of the entire film.
It’s certainly not going to appeal to the masses that are looking for a quick and digestible sci-fi action film. Gravity is much more approachable in that manner, even though I wouldn’t classify that as action. Ad Astra takes its sweet time setting up and it’s rather true to its intentions from start-to-finish, despite ending on such a lame note.
Of course, I am quick to compare this to one of my own favorite sci-fi gems, Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar; a film that I did not initially love, but have grown to absolutely adore. Interstellar is a much larger film that certainly feels a bit more broad, but Ad Astra does feel close in nature when comparing objectives and core relationships.
Brad Pitt gives a cold, but enduring performance as Roy McBride. The entire film is shown through his perspective, with constant voice-overs and narration furthering the film’s plot. Pitt is having a fantastic year with Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and now this. I’m honestly surprised by the reaction people are giving Pitt, suddenly realizing his range as an actor and talents as a performer. I’ve always loved Pitt and Ad Astra is no change to the status quo.
Tommy Lee Jones gives a brief, but slightly unstable performance as Roy’s father. Speaking more to his performance might ruin the film’s effectiveness, so I will simply say that he does his job well.
The rest of Ad Astra is carried by Gray’s direction and a script he co-wrote with Ethan Gross. The two haven’t cracked the secrets of the universe, but they toy with the idea that maybe we already know the answers. I can’t stop praising the film for its visual beauty and how content it is with not being a bloated Hollywood blockbuster.
While I don’t think Ad Astra is a perfect film — I do think it’s a well-crafted think-piece that we just don’t see enough of. And I look forward to rediscovering it again and again in the coming years. I feel like this has the potential to be up there with Interstellar as a film that I have fallen in love with after repeat viewings have been had and those initial gut reactions have settled.
It’s hard not to bring your own baggage or expectations into a movie and then to be thrown off by the director’s intentions, which are wildly something else altogether. That being said, I still feel that Ad Astra could have ended on a much stronger note, but the note it settles for is still a touching one that might wreck those that have maybe had rocky relationships with their fathers.
Ad Astra is one of the year’s most divided films, attempting to tell an intimate and difficult story on a wide spectrum, capturing audiences with its visuals and hoping to keep them engaged with its hard-to-chew story that might resonate more with some than others. For that, I must recommend that you see it on the largest and loudest screen possible to fully engage all senses.