If there’s one thing that’s certain it’s that this film is strikingly different from the marketing that is being purported. Ad Astra presents itself as a sort of “action orientated space mystery film”, what with space fights and horror elements being shown throughout its trailer, but this couldn’t be further from reality. In truth, Ad Astra has more in common with experience-orientated cinema such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, and even Apocalypse Now – it is a deeply meditative film experience that explores themes of male vulnerability, human relationships, and the consequences of being withdrawn from others. Directed by James Gray, Ad Astra brings you the story of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a trained astronaut travelling across the solar system in search for his father (Tommy Lee Jones) in an attempt to stop his experiment which is having disastrous consequences on the rest of the solar system.
Ad Astra travels through the vast reaches of space to take an introspective look into the human condition. Much of this films evocations are channeled through the character of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt). Roy is shown to be a withdrawn and unsettlingly calm man who performs great under tense situations; making him the perfect candidate for long voyage mission to contact his father. However, as the film progresses we slowly start to see the cracks in McBride’s exterior shell as he lets the events that are happening affect him mentally. This is what this film is really about, seeing a man who is so deeply emotionally disconnected find his own sense of self. This is not a voyage or film to explore the meaning of humanity like large-scale experiences such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but rather, a voyage to explore a single man’s life.
Brad Pitt was exceptional and delivered an outstanding performance as the film starts to deconstruct the mental state of McBride. As Pitt does not rely on dialogue, given there is so little; the film must rely on Pitt to subtlety use micro-expressions to help you understand the character. Throughout the film, there are voice-overs by Pitt which are often jarring and break the heavy immersion felt during these moments. The script prospers from its deeply humane story that is handled with attentive detail and is exquisite in its study of its character.
Ad Astra takes its time to reach a cathartic ending but uses that time to develop and study its character to make the ending feel earned. The narrative can often lose its momentum that it builds as the film flows inconsistently at times, however, Pitt had the ability to pull us back in with his mesmerising on-screen performance.
Comparable to its narrative, Ad Astra also thrives on its technical scope from its photo-realistic visual effects to its beautiful, larger-than-life score. Hoyte Van Hoytema once again achieves greatness behind the camera as he is able to use it to build a strong sense of atmosphere and allow the audience to indulge and be immersed in the film. The film uses a custom 35mm lens which gives the texture of the frame a grainy look and helps develop the visual language to align with McBride’s state of mind throughout the space journey. As the film gets deeper in its narrative, colours begin to feel singular (light-faded oranges on Mars in comparison to its deep blues in Neptune). This film may have the best use of CGI in a film for 2019, it is barely noticeable throughout the runtime of the film and is blended into the film almost perfectly. Ad Astra fully utilises its budget ($80 million or so) to deliver an Oscar-worthy win of Best Visual Effects, this can be demonstrated in a Moon chase that feels like Mad Max: Fury Road on the moon.
Composer Max Richter provides a beautiful musical score, wavering from a quiet and mysterious strum to a flamboyant orchestral piece which will give you goosebumps during the film’s most tense scenes. Alongside with the musical score, comes excellent sound design in all departments. It encompasses every sound and pays attention to detail which assists in making the film feel immersive.
Ad Astra is a meditative space adventure which will hopefully go down as one of the all-time great space films. James Gray orchestrates this personal and contemplative space experience with an uncompromised, focussed vision that delivers a fantastic performance from Brad Pitt, photo-realistic visuals and a reflective score.