“Ad Astra” Movie Review

Of all the depictions of mankind’s future in the stars on the silver screen, this one might be one of the most grounded in plausibility. There’s no telling what exactly the future holds for us and to see this particular sort of portrait is fascinating. This large-scaled science-fiction drama premiere in the Official Competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Aglow with positive reviews from critics, it was released in theaters by Disney under the 20th Century Fox banner on September 20th, 2019. From its opening weekend, it has thus far grossed over $120.1 million against an estimated budget of around $87 million. The studio is reportedly watching its performance closely for future analysis, though the star and director don’t seem to care as much. Directed by James Gray, the filmmaker spent the better part of a decade working on the project with co-writer Ethan Gross. His stated goal was to create the most realistic depiction of space in the history of film, especially of how hostile it is to humans. While many comparisons have obviously been made to the film Apocalypse Now and its novel inspiration Heart of Darkness, it’s also believed to stem from Gray’s complicated experience as a father. Originally scheduled to be ready in time for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film was repeatedly pushed back to accommodate time for the complex visual effects and for new distributor Disney to figure out the marketing campaign. Set in the near future, Brad Pitt produces and stars as Major Roy McBride, a space engineer and astronaut. After a series of power surges through the Solar System cause the deaths of thousands, the higher ups at Space Command believe it to be the work of his father H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Clifford had disappeared 16 years prior on the Lima Project, a deep space mission that was meant to find signs of intelligent life in the farthest reaches of the Solar System. Believed to have lost his mind and hiding out near Neptune, Roy is assigned to go out and try and communicate with him, unraveling dark secrets about the mission in the process. I had been looking forward to this movie from the minute it had been announced a couple years back. I’m a fan of James Gray because I think he brings a certain classical touch to popular genres, like he did with The Lost City of Z and We Own the Night. Not to mention, this might be the biggest-scale project Brad Pitt has ever been a part of, which is really saying something. Hearing tale that this was more akin to Apocalypse Now in space rather than something like The Martian was extremely enticing. And plus, I will always support original big budget sci-fi movies in theaters because they’re becoming increasingly rare and in need of more attention. Such is the case with Ad Astra because it is simply one of the best films of the year and one hell of a breath of fresh air for science-fiction. While its yesteryear influences do feel clear in some respects, this film feels so adept to modern times. Some people have said that this is a feature-length advertisement for the proposed “Space Force,” but it’s far more abstract than that. Many people still cling to the idea that space really is the final frontier and while it may hold the future to someone like Elon Musk, to everyone else it’s simply a vast, cold, and empty void. What makes Ad Astra so amazing is that it addresses this hostility but keeps the hope of interpersonal connections at the forefront of its mind. Part of the reason Roy and Clifford love space so much is because it gives them an opportunity to get away from their loved ones, to isolate and become one with the universe. But it becomes clear that they’re both missing out on what’s right in front of them the entire time, and that sort of humanism is both beautiful and sorely lacking in the genre as a whole. I honestly didn’t think that Brad Pitt could top Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but he has proven me wrong once again. As Roy McBride, he’s so incredibly reserved and collected for much of the film always internalizing his own emotions and fears about everything. And he goes about this mission, long repressed feelings about his father and life begin to bubble to the surface, especially because he thinks that Space Command is hiding something. Ruth Negga is memorable as well as Helen Lantos, a human native to Mars that encounters Roy on his journey. Although she’s only there for a brief period of time, she proves to be vital in his task as she apparently harbors a unique connection with his family. Her ability to empathize with Roy on his struggles makes her rare among the other companions he finds on his mission, and she’s one of the few people to get through to him emotionally and psychologically. Donald Sutherland also gets a rare chance to shine as Colonel Pruitt, Roy’s first and most consistent companion on his journey. He provides much insight into Clifford’s character as he tries to reason that he is not the man Roy remembers him being. Even after The Hunger Games series, it’s nice to see the 84-year-old actor put in some genuine work in a genre film like this. The supporting cast features a host of different individuals who have varying impacts on Roy’s mission or personal life. These include John Ortiz and John Finn as high-ranking officials in Space Command, Donny Keshawarz as an assuming ship captain moving straight from the Moon to Mars, Liv Tyler as his estranged Earth-bound wife Eve, and Tommy Lee Jones as his mysterious father Clifford. Each one leaves a pretty good impression and while Jones certainly isn’t the star of the film, he has a powerful monologue late in the film where it becomes apparent the Lima Project has become all-encompassing. And from just a look at the technical aspects, Ad Astra is such a prestigious and polished film. Shot by Interstellar and Dunkirk DP Hoyte Van Hoytema, the cinematography is about as incredible as you’d expect from him. Beginning with a glorious pan shot to Earth, the transition between CGI and practical sets is nearly flawless. The realistic lighting and careful shots help to establish the unique atmosphere and futuristic world. These include Mars, which is engulfed in an orange-red haze, and the Moon, where everything is wide open and spread out. The editing job is a collaborative effort between John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, and it moves from scene to scene effortlessly. There’s an almost weightless quality to the pacing of this film, as each moment is cut together very smoothly and elegantly. It often switches from wide-angle or medium shots to Roy’s P.O.V. to help us get inside his headspace, whether it’s on the collapsing space antenna or when his escort is attacked by moon pirates. And what’s even better is that these scenes are almost entirely devoid of sound, which makes their impact even more sudden. Classically trained composer Max Richter gives us the instrumental score here, and it’s quite possibly my favorite of his for a feature film. The main track, while lacking a conventional melody, is a sweeping and memorable one filled with high and low strings. Other tracks throughout use a very similar method, and even throw in some old-school electronic sounds for good measure. It’s at once very melancholy and also hopeful, using the composer’s trademark minimalism to capture the emotional effects space has one person. The soundtrack also uses songs from various other composers to great effect, such as newcomer Lorne Balfe. The most notable one, though, is Nils Frahm, whose song “Says” plays near the climax of the film. The synth-heavy piece perfectly plays up the tension as everything our protagonist has worked towards comes to a stirring head. Bolstered by excellent thematic ideas and one of the best uses of voice-over in recent memory, Ad Astra has stunning cosmic visuals to match its deeply humanistic story. Quite possibly James Gray’s finest picture yet, and certainly one of his most accessible, this is the kind of science-fiction movie that studios don’t really make anymore. It features one of Brad Pitt’s greatest performances and a curious message about how maintaining interpersonal relationships is more important than finding any other form of life in the universe. And in a world that’s becoming increasingly distant and disconnected, that is the sort of oddly comforting optimism that should be appreciated more.

Ad Astra - Poster Gallery

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