MOVIE REVIEW — Ad Astra
It has been a little over 24 hours since I experienced this film in theaters, and the more I think about it, the more I fall in love with this film. Months ago, rumors circulated about this film being littered with studio interference in order to make it more mainstream or approachable, but it seems like it was just that; rumors. Ad Astra is not only a film that appears to be the pure vision of the director, but also one that seems to be better off for it. From the moment I saw the first trailer for Ad Astra earlier this year, it had immediately entered itself onto my master-list of films to watch for the year, for several reasons. For starters, I am unabashedly a sucker for science fiction and always have been since I was a child. It also helps that the cast, cinematography, and concept all came off increasingly interesting as we hurdled towards the release of this film. This is a movie that has A LOT to unpack and discuss, so I strongly encourage you to see it before reading on (if you don’t care about spoilers, then feel free to continue, but you have been warned).
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father and 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. When Roy is first introduced, he is alienated from society and his loved ones, namely his ex-wife Eve (Liv Tyler) and his father and fellow astronaut, H. Clifford McBride,(Tommy Lee Jones) with the latter having thought to have been lost in space for decades. When a series of power surges ravage Earth, Roy is assigned to a classified mission meant to search and destroy the remnants of the Lima Project, the mission his father was attached to before he went MIA, and also the supposed source of these surges. It is in the opening of this film that we are introduced to this “Near Future” world, with there being an International Space Tower that SpaceCom uses to try and contact intelligent life outside of Earth. From the moment McBride steps outside and onto the side of the tower, overlooking the breathtaking vista that is the curvature of the Earth, it is fully evident that the visuals of the film are going to be unforgettable. Once the Ad Astra is released on Blu-Ray, the behind the scenes footage will be telling, but from watching it in IMAX it seems as if a portion of McBride’s free fall was legitimately shot with a skydiver which only adds to the authenticity of the scene.
With Roy accepting the mission to find his father and the Lima Project, that is said to be somewhere around the planet Neptune, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) is assigned to be McBride’s handler on his trip to the moon, and then again to Mars before heading to Neptune. It is on his journey to the moon that Gray reveals his vision of near-future space travel as brought to you by companies like Virgin Mobile, rooting this film strongly in the present day. Oh, and the moon is now inhabitable and features a Subway and Applebee’s to boot. This is in line with another science fiction masterpiece from 51 years ago (albeit on a larger scale now); 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Kubrick's classic, Dr. Floyd spends a portion of his section of the film inside a space Hilton hotel, a clear predecessor to the version of the moon seen in Ad Astra, that acts as a space-port and commercial destination.
Not only does Ad Astra feature some absolutely awe-inspiring sequences throughout, but it also lays in some visual poetry over the course of its brief two hour runtime. There is something terribly poetic about the emptiness of abandonment molding the character of Roy McBride for his entire life, only for the knowledge of his father still being alive somewhere in the dark, uninhabited and endless boundaries of space, and his subsequent meeting and death of his father to be the catalyst for his yearning for humanity and human contact. The entire movie, Roy is seen to stay to himself, pushing those closest (his wife) completely away and out of the picture, something that his father admits to knowingly doing in the final act of the film, even going as far to say straight-faced to his son that he never cared or thought about him or his mother while away in space. That reveal and line delivery from Tommy Lee Jones broke me. Not having dealt with abandonment, but having directly dealt with parental loss, the feeling of not being able to see or talk to one of your parents while still developing is something I would not wish on my worst enemy, as cliche as that sounds. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Roy McBride and the effects that his father’s absence had (and still has) on him is so brutally honest and true to how I have found myself feeling at times that it hard to distinguish it from acting at times.
To speak on Pitt for a moment, what a year he has had, with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood most likely earning him a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination at next year’s Academy Awards, among other ceremonies, and now this, in arguably one of his greatest performances to date. While Pitt has never been considered to be the greatest actor alive, looking back at his resume and filmography, it is hard to deny his spot in cinema history. A bonafide movie star, willing to dabble in independent character studies as well as big blockbuster hits, Pitt remains one of the most versatile actors working today. Him starring in AND giving two career-defining performances in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Ad Astra in the same year will be looked back upon as one of the best years of his career (performance-wise).
Ad Astra would not be the complete package that it is without one of the best musical scores of the year, this film’s being from composer Max Richter, as well as some truly breathtaking cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema, who coincidentally also was the cinematographer of Nolan’s Interstellar. Combining the direction, performances, cinematography, and musical score, this film is one of the most incredible pieces of cinema of 2019.
The only negative aspect of the film is not even one that actively takes away from the viewing experience. If you have seen the film you most likely know the scene in question, as it involves a killer baboon in space (you read that right). While the scene adds some excellent tension and much needed conflict for the middle of the film, as well as setting up McBride’s rise to captain of the ship, it feels as if any number of space-related conflicts could have been subbed in for this. Playing devil’s advocate, this scene plays out wonderfully in its attempt to subvert expectations. The moment the captain mentions the distress call from a space station, flashbacks to Ridley Scott’s Alien (and many other science fiction films) come rushing to mind. Captain Tanner and McBride enter the station and it immediately feels as if some alien creature is going to pop out and start attacking, especially with the basis of the Lima Project being to find intelligent life. That is not the case, and instead it turns out to be a rogue research animal that kills Tanner rather than a Face-Hugger or Xenomorph. This whole sequence is going to be one that polarize audiences in either hating it or loving it for throwing a spin on the abandoned spaceship cliche.
A low-burn science fiction film that never tries to be something it is not, Ad Astra is without a doubt on the same level of science fiction classics such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. While this film will for everyone, leaving a good number of people bored to tears, leaving behind the bold action sequences in favor of a space-based character study, seeing this film in IMAX was a spectacle, and even more endearing was the fact that the theater was decently full (something I found unexpected as I foresaw this film bombing). There were several times throughout its brief two hour runtime that the audience reactions were great through gasps and whispered comments on certain scenes. Ad Astra is a movie for the ages, and one that will surely go down as one of the all time greats for the science fiction genre, as well as bringing about one of Brad Pitt’s greatest performances to date.
Lastly, I just have two pieces of advice I want to give to anyone reading this that has yet to see Ad Astra:
- Go in with an open mind, not expecting anything in particular and let the film take you where it wants.
- See it in IMAX. See it in IMAX. And did I mention, SEE IT IN IMAX!!! (I really can’t stress this last point enough. I missed out seeing First Man in IMAX and will never make that mistake again)
Thanks for checking out my review of James Gray’s Ad Astra! If you enjoyed this review, be sure to follow me here on Medium for more, but also to follow me over on Twitter and Letterboxd for a more “full” understanding of my thoughts on all things film!