Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland with a screenplay by James Gray and Ethan Gross. It arrives in UK cinemas on September 18, 2019.
Directed by James Gray Ad Astra centres on Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) who travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and to unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.
There’s a moment late in the 124min runtime where Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford finally explains to his son Roy (Brad Pitt) exactly why he’s been sitting on the fringes of our galaxy, alone for decades.
In this exact moments it becomes clear that writer/director James Gray has crafted a visual masterpiece. But a masterpiece which ultimately suffers from a weak final message for its audience to takeaway from the story.
I found that after the credits rolled I consistently argued with myself – commenting on my own sanity – for some time about how exactly I felt about what I had seen on screen.
Ad Astra without doubt features the most captivating cinematography I have witnessed, so far, in 2019. Needless to say the scenes set in space are sparse, sprawling and deeply engaging but so too are the landscapes.
Given its “near future” setting there’s enough augmentation to Earth to make it look beyond what we would expect, whilst settlements on the Moon and our base on Mars are equally as bewitching.
There’s a fine level of detail to scene and set design which could easily be overlooked at first viewing. The way in which Gray subtlety enhances environments is creatively brilliant and shows that this is a director who really takes his craft seriously.
The psychological testing of astronauts on a daily basis provided a great insight into Roy’s mind whilst also showing off some of humanities technological advances and therefore amped up the science-fiction.
But in stark contrast moments like Roy’s journey to space were underpinned by real world developments. Seeing his moon journey on a Virgin Galactic ship really grounded the visuals, at least during the first act, in a reality which the audience can understand and identify with.
Very aspect of the details seen on screen is given some context by which it relates to the story. This approach to the aesthetic of the film elevates it beyond standard films in this genre.
Just as elevating is the stand-out performance by Brad Pitt. With Roy appearing in what is essentially every scene of the movie, Pitt is hugely relied upon to help deliver the story. Whilst the ultimate message of Ad Astra is somewhat lost in translation that is by no fault of Pitt’s.
Much of the story is told through Roy’s mission logs and daily psychiatric evaluations (see what I mean about using the technology in the context of the story?). These moments offer more of Roy’s emotional side than his interactions with other characters.
As a focal point in the film, Roy is an excellent protagonist. He’s flawed, emotionally scarred and has enough baggage to entice even the most sceptical viewer in to following his story.
There’s a fatalistic nature to how Roy approaches his mission. As details about his father’s potential motivations and history come to light, Roy becomes increasingly desperate to complete the mission.
There’s an well crafted parallel between father and son. Though there time together on screen is brief the impact is much more far reaching across the entire narrative of the piece.
But herein lies the problem with Ad Astra’s ending: once Clifford explains to his son he was simply desperate to find extraterrestrial life, there is nothing more for the film to explore.
Underpinning the entire narrative is the danger that all life on Earth will be wiped out by the pulses radiating from Clifford’s Lima project shuttle. It’s an interesting aspect which is entirely underdeveloped until the film has to fall back on it.
With no emotional tale left to tell Ad Astra reverts to a save the world drama and whilst it ultimately resolves the dangling plot threads of the story it does so without being wholly satisfying.
Hoyt’s Van Hoytema’s Oscar worthy cinematography is punctuated by the brilliant soundscape of composer Max Richter and a brilliant sound department.
The score is very isolated and sparse but still creates a unique aesthetic for the film. Given the number of these existential, intelligent space movies it’s no mean feat to create a soundscape which doesn’t feel like a copycat of Moon or Interstellar for example.
Set doesn’t and special effects are also top notch. Many of the space mechanics of Ad Astra feel grounded in real science which also felt very endearing.
Ad Astra shoots for the stars in every aspect of its production. Luscious cinematography, a haunting soundscape and an affectingly emotional performance from Brad Pitt are all components to make this one of the best films of 2019.
But a weak ending means Ad Astra fails to fully land its unabashedly existential journey to the edges of our galaxy.