REVIEW: Ad Astra (2019)

Theatrical IMAX-Release Poster – 20th Century Fox

The following is a review of Ad Astra — Directed by James Gray.

As we are getting closer and closer to the end of a decade, we naturally get the urge to take a look backward and reflect on the films that have shaped a decade in film history. One genre that has thrived in the 2010s is science-fiction. It almost feels like every year of this decade has had at least one science-fiction or space-set film that appealed to an adult audience and included challenging themes or stories. Just like 2013 and 2014 had Gravity and Interstellar respectively, 2019 has James Gray’s Ad Astra — an intimate, meditative, and introspective science-fiction film about a son following in the footsteps of his father to complete a mission. Just like both of the two aforementioned films, Ad Astra is ambitious and exceptional.

As the on-screen text describes in the very opening of the film, Ad Astra takes place in the near future. It is a time when space travel has become common practice and where there are both military outposts on Mars and fast-food sandwich restaurants on the Moon. Mankind has reached for the stars and made its mark on nearby planets. But mankind, the military, and select physicists want more. Therefore, decades prior to the beginning of the film, ‘Lima Project,’ the search for extraterrestrial life on the farthest regions of our solar system, was initiated. The crew, led by Dr. Clifford McBride (played by Tommy Lee Jones), eventually disappeared.

Now, in the aforementioned near future, Clifford’s son, Major Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) has been impacted considerably by his father’s disappearance. Not only has he followed a similar career path as his father, but he also has great difficulties with relationships. He loses himself in his work much like his father did. Famous for the surname he has inherited, Roy McBride is also an incredibly skilled astronaut. He has a remarkable ability to keep his cool as his heart rate never goes above 80 beats per minute. He is calm, cool, and collected even when he spins out of control down towards Earth after a power surge destroys the space antenna that he works on.

Following the disastrous event which cost lives, Roy is called in for a meeting with the United States Space Command, which informs him of a mission that will hopefully stop the increasingly violent power surges from taking place throughout the solar system and on Earth. The power surge supposedly originates from the Lima Project, and SPACECOM believes that Roy’s father is still alive. So they task Roy with traveling through our solar system in an attempt to communicate with his father and prevent future disasters. But it is soon made apparent that SPACECOM has ulterior motives that may shock the otherwise unflappable Roy McBride to his core.

James Gray’s Ad Astra is an almost perfect blend of and definitely a companion piece to films like Interstellar and First Man. Like Interstellar, Ad Astra is an ambitious science-fiction film with these incredible sequences in space as well as these scenes that depict a difficult relationship between parent and child. Like First Man, Ad Astra is a deliberately paced introspective journey into the heart of our protagonist who is fairly taciturn. Furthermore, the overwhelming opening sequence of Gray’s film reminded me of Cuarón’s Gravity, and a fascinating action chase-sequence set on the Moon feels like Mad Max: Fury Road if it were set in space where everything moves slowly. Gray walks in the footsteps of Damien Chazelle, Christopher Nolan, George Miller, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ridley Scott, and Stanley Kubrick. Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography reminded me of his own work in Interstellar and certain images looked satisfyingly similar to Roger Deakins’ outstanding work in Blade Runner 2049. Hoytema and Gray convincingly take you to the edge of the solar system, and, on Mars, provide you with an eerie but effective use of color and darkness.

Aided by haunting music from Max Richter, James Gray’s Ad Astra is a challenging but intimate and introspective film. It is a film about the influence of masculinity and a missing parent, being consumed and blinded by your own belief even in the absence of proof, and a longing for a parental bond. I think it is a powerful film with a lot on its mind. The film is also a rewarding religious allegory about confronting your maker. The film is ultimately about finding a new meaning to life if the stars don’t hold all the answers. The film features a character who has shielded himself from feeling, who has rid himself of all signs of human emotion, and who quietly claws his way away from society so that he may confront his own self-worth, worldview, and his father where no one can hear you scream. I think the film has a lot to say about feeling defined by your parents. Roy McBride is a character that keeps being pulled towards his father, even when he tries his hardest to be unlike him. It is a film about escaping the path that your parental bond, or lack thereof, set you on.

Other than Disney blockbusters, the first nine months of 2019 have belonged to Brad Pitt, whose recent successes would be summed up as a career renaissance were it not for the fact that he has enjoyed massive, almost unrivaled fame for decades. With first Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and now Ad Astra, Brad Pitt is well on his way to becoming the most popular actor of the year. His undeniable charm was impossible to resist in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but, in Ad Astra, his performance couldn’t be more different. Here Pitt has taken a page out of Ryan Gosling’s book and given a stunning performance as a reserved and untalkative character. You can feel the frustration bubbling underneath his skin until it overwhelms him on Mars where Pitt showcases a vulnerability that is moving and appears convincingly liberating.

It gave me great pleasure to see Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones in a new major motion picture again, but the latter actor, for most of the film, is shown merely in footage on futuristic tablets, and the former actor’s charming performance also doesn’t feel complete. Nevertheless, I enjoyed them both in the film. In general, the supporting characters are underutilized. Ruth Negga basically has two scenes, and Liv Tyler, who plays Roy McBride’s wife, barely has anything to say, even though her character carries symbolic weight.

I am fully aware of how polarizing certain cerebral and deliberately paced science-fiction films can be. I’ve lost count of the number of arguments I’ve had with family members about the pacing and profundity of Blade Runner 2049. But these films aren’t for everyone, and Ad Astra will have plenty of naysayers as well. It’s certainly a film that can test your patience, even if I never felt that way. There is an overwhelming amount of expositional dialogue in Ad Astra, which is confidently unhurried. But I, frankly, didn’t have a problem with the pace. Even though it is unhurried, the narrative of Ad Astra feels almost like an episodic space adventure, and I enjoyed seeing McBride’s journey evolve and change as he traveled from planet to planet.

In discussing Ad Astra and its potentially problematic elements, it would be remiss of me not to mention another science-fiction film that Gray’s film is inspired by. People often talk about the woeful narration that a disinterested Harrison Ford once recorded for Ridley Scott’s brilliant Blade Runner. In James Gray’s Ad Astra, Brad Pitt narrates the film from start to finish with an almost monotonous voice-over. This voice-over will absolutely be annoying to some, as heavy narration can sometimes oversimplify or drown out even great films. It may be the result of studio meddling — we may never know — but the narration in Ad Astra didn’t bother me that much. But I’d certainly be interested in other versions of this film, if Gray wants to make different cuts of the film available like Scott eventually did with Blade Runner. However, I do see how some audiences would be bored to tears by the pace, the excessive expositional dialogue, and the heavy voice-over narration.

Some people will undoubtedly complain that the experience of watching this film feels like drifting through space with no end in sight while listening to the musings of an emotionally detached astronaut. But I am of the opinion that this contemplative film is much more than stargazing and monologues marked by monotony. James Gray’s Ad Astra is a masterful film about going to the edge of the universe to find solutions to our own issues with identity, belonging, and loneliness. This well-crafted science-fiction film reminds us that when we reach for the stars, we mustn’t forget about our humanity.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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