Review: Ad Astra

DIR: James Gray • WRI: James Gray, Ethan Gross • DOP: Hoyte Van Hoytema • ED: John Axelrad, Lee Haugen • DES: Kevin Thompson • PRO: Dede Gardner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan, Yariv Milchan, Brad Pitt, Rodrigo Teixeira • MUS: Max Richter • CAST: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland

Space is a fascinating concept. Down here on earth we look up to the stars and dream of one day touching them. If we go high enough in our attempts to reach them, we will be greeted by an endless vacuum of darkness populated by planets that no human has ever graced. It’s hard to fathom that with all the technology that’s available to us we still haven’t fully explored the known universe. Imagine what may lie past our solar system. These incomprehensible visions of space have gifted audiences with some of the best films of all time. Kubrick gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan gave us Interstellar. Cuaron gave us Gravity. Chazelle gave us First Man.  Scott gave us The Martian. All these auteurs have attempted to capture the awe and wonder of space. These directors have taken on board ships to help us reach the stars. Ad Astra sees James Gray tackle the genre which is perhaps the hardest to master. Yet master is exactly what Gray does as this is a film that is not only the best of 2019 so far but is the film that should catapult Gray into superstardom. 

Ad Astra tells the story of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) an astronaut whose father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) helms The Lima project, the project focuses on finding out what wonders exist in our solar system. When Clifford stops reporting to base Roy must go on a monumental mission to Neptune to save both his strained relationship with his father and the world. Going into Ad Astra its best to know as little plot details as possible. The only film that compares to Ad Astra is Apocalypse Now. Except you have to swap the jungle for space, Michael Sheen for Brad Pitt and Marlon Brando with Tommy Lee Jones. This is an exploration into the heart of darkness of space and the human mind. 

Those expecting a huge blockbuster need to know that it is a drama, not an action film. That’s not to say that there is no action to be found. There are four to five enthralling sequences that are pulse-racing. Everything about the action feels real even if we can’t relate to what we are seeing on screen. The opening sequence that finds Roy hurtling to earth is astonishing. From the off, it’s clear that this film is giving the audience an experience that they have never had before. A space-buggy chase on the moon is science fiction at its best. When you think you’ve seen everything that the moon has to offer on film, Ad Astra gives you a chase sequence unlike any other. The film makes the brave decision of keeping the action to a minimum. A decision that elevates the film above 90% of science fiction. Ad Astra is an examination of the mind. Action is used as a means of testing the character’s emotional strength as much as their physicality. Every decision the characters make when dealing with a potential catastrophe matter. The world of Ad Astra is as unforgiving as the real world. 

Brad Pitt has been on a roll recently. Pitt is one of the final examples of the almost extinct concept of the A-lister. It’s easy to forget that there was a stage in Pitt’s career where he was unfairly mocked. Critics tended to write off Pitt as an actor who only took safe choices. As if his roles in Snatch, Fight Club and Twelve Monkeys never happened. The past decade has seen Pitt win the respect he deserves from critics. From Inglorious Bastards onwards Pitt received the rightful reputation as one of the best actors working today. 

Ad Astra may be the best work of the esteemed actor’s career to date. While not as flashy as the other characters that Pitt has played. Roy McBride is the most important. A stoic character who even though on the surface he’s a man whose heart rate has never exceeded 85 BPM, he’s suffering internally. Through a voiceover that plays Roy’s thoughts to the audience, we get an insight into a damaged mind. Pitt gives a nuanced performance that captures what it’s like to suffer mentally. As someone who suffers from severe depression, I appreciated how the film handles it. Even though on the outside we may act as if everything is okay, often on the inside we are suffering immense pain. As the film progresses Roy’s esteem sinks lower and lower. Pitt doesn’t change his performance. Outside of a single tear rolling down his cheek there is no extreme outburst of emotion. Yet, he is not emotionless. Pitt’s performance is one that must be seen by any aspiring actor. Less is often more. Thanks to his flawless subtle performance Pitt could be on the way to his first Oscar win. 

Obviously saying that Roy is the main character is an understatement, nevertheless Ad Astra would not work without the side characters who, while only having a few minutes of screentime, each add layers of depth to the story. Ireland’s own Ruth Negga on the back of her first Oscar nomination appears during an interval on Mars. Negga’s Helen is a similar character to Roy except for the way she’s able to control her sadness. It’s disappointing that Negga is only in one segment of the film, but it’s clear as day that the Irish native is a genuine star.

Donald Sutherland plays Colonel McBride, a veteran astronaut who serves as a reminder of the relationship that Roy could have had with his father. Sutherland is seldom seen on screen these days. Yet even in the latter stages of his career the actor gives a performance of a man who never left his prime. Tommy Lee Jones as Roy’s father is a character who is talked about more than actually seen. Following nearly the entirety of the film building up to his arrival it easily could have fallen flat. Jones knocks his performance out of the park, giving his best performance since No Country for Old Men. The payoff to the father-son relationship will have everyone in the theatre wanting to give their dad a hug when they arrive home. After all it’s the relationship we have with our parents that impact us the most as people.

James Gray is no stranger to ambitious films. His last feature, The Lost City of Z, took audiences on a journey through the Amazon. A journey which showed that Gray is not interested in taking the easy route. With Ad Astra Gray wants the audience to feel as if they themselves are going on an intergalactic quest. The direction of the film is brilliant. Never before has a space film felt this real. It would not be surprising to learn that he and Pitt went to space for a few months to film.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema treats the world to some of the most beautiful images of space to ever grace the screen. As a large portion of the film is spent solely with Roy traveling through space, there was a high chance that the film could have felt lifeless. However, the score from Max Richter is perfection. It almost feels as if the music is a character of its own. If you have no interest in seeing the film do yourself a favour and buy the soundtrack. Gray also makes the wise decision of not filling his film with unnecessary sentimentality. Interstellar would have been a perfect film if the plot wasn’t bogged down by a forced love story. Instead Gray leaves details of the romantic past between Roy and Eve (Liv Tyler) to our imagination. In an age where studio films suggest that the only way to be a man is to fight your way through every battle, Gray gives a healthy account of what masculinity should be. Gray wants the world to know that a hero does not have to be an emotionless machine who generates random quips. It’s okay for men to feel emotion. If anything, it makes you more of a man. 

Ad Astra is the film equivalent of a solar eclipse. A film of this quality may only arrive every couple of years; when it does arrive it truly is special. The performances, direction, score, cinematography, themes, and impact all fit together perfectly to make the finest film of the year. For all those times you looked up to the stars as a kid and wondered “what if I made it up there?”, Ad Astra gives you the answer. Many will write off the film for being slow, yet that is what the world needs right now. With all the horrors and monstrosities happening around us. Perhaps, it’s time to stop and reflect. Ask ourselves why are we allowing the world to be this way.  It’s time for change. Ad Astra is a sign of an important change in the industry. It’s about time. 

Liam De Brún

@liamjoeireland

122′ 55″
12A (see IFCO for details)

Ad Astra is released 20th September 2019

Ad Astra – Official Website

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