Jacob Richardson | 20/09/2019
A gripping, dramatically rewarding exploration of the deepest regions of space, and the deepest recesses of our hero’s psyche.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the pride of the US Army Space Division; a decorated ex-soldier, now working on the space antenna, who is fabled to be so calm, cool and collected that his heart rate has never risen above 80 bpm. That nonchalance extends to his personal life too, however, where his only meaningful relationship is with his ex (played by Liv Tyler), who left him for being too distant.
All this comes to a grinding halt when a power surge from a far off planet threatens life on Earth, and the very fabric of our universe. The surge is coming from Neptune, where the LEMA Project, which was helmed by McBride’s father and world-renowned space exploration hero Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), has been stranded for 27 years. The military think that, despite the prevailing belief to the contrary, Clifford may actually be alive and causing these power surges. So Roy must travel to the outer reaches of the solar system, through war torn ravages on the Moon, to a far flung human outpost on Mars, and then further on to where only one crew has ever journeyed before, to stop the threat and confront his long lost father.
James Gray’s Ad Astra spends a lot of time masquerading as a space film. In reality, the tale at the heart of this movie is much more introspective. Roy is fundamentally emotionally stunted by the loss of his father as a young child. His Dad, who nearly everyone he meets likes to bring up due to his mythological hero status (Roy is frequently referred to as ‘Clifford’s son’), abandoned him and his mother to pursue a long, dangerous and unknown voyage on the search for alien life, and that abandonment has crippled Roy emotionally. To his employers and colleagues, they see this as a man entirely in control of his psyche - someone who never panics, and who is always capable. But we see the flipside of this; a man who struggles with emotion. As the film progresses, and Roy gets closer and closer to his father, this facade starts to break down. Pitt, whose performance is truly incredible and undoubtedly Oscar-worthy, signifies this progressive transition towards a healthy emotional state frequently through his eyes. Whereas an early Roy in danger barely registers any distress at all, Roy starts to question, talk back, well up in the eyes and shake, until a final breaking point when he comes face to face with a father who said he never once thought about him all these years, and a single tear streams out the corner of his eye and down his face. All of this emotional journey for the hero is captured in an intense performance from Pitt, who is on the best form he has been on in years, if not ever.
That being said, Ad Astra also has a lot of incredible space-related action involved. There is a fun representation of a commercialised life on the moon, coupled with a dramatic, almost entirely silent high speed chase across the lunar surface. The scenes on Mars are beautiful, in particular a radio room carved out of shards of the red rock. The final confrontations near Neptune are also visually stunning, and incorporate some out there space antics. If you’re looking for a film that gives grounding and context to a futuristic humanity that has effectively mastered the art of intra-solar system space travel, than this is definitely that. For anyone looking for their sci-fi fix, look no further.
The final distinguishing factor is the cinematography. DP Hoyte Van Hoytema does a tremendous job of not only making this movie feel beautiful, but capturing the contrasting vastness of space and diminutiveness of the human ego. He gives each place its own distinct feel, and that helps keep the movie propelling along at a pace.
Ad Astra is a space masterpiece; but beneath its out there exterior, it’s a deeply human tale grounded in an unassuming, exquisite performance by Pitt.