Every year has at least one space-focused movie and this decade has been full of them. This specific one comes from writer/director James Gray, who started out making gritty thrillers like The Yards and We Own The Night yet has transitioned into being more of a classical storyteller with epic dramas like The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z. Given how Z was one of my favourite movies of 2017, I was excited about his venture into sci-fi. Ultimately, though Ad Astra isn’t as perfect as I wanted it to be, it still manages to overall be a compelling experience.
In the future, Space colonisation has expanded to various other planets in our solar system, including the Moon and Mars. The power surges from a spacecraft that was part of previous space exploration mission The Lima Project close to Neptune are causing catastrophes on earth. Astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was the one who headed the Lima Project, so his son Roy (Brad Pitt) is tasked with finding it and stopping the surges. Along the way, Roy is forced to grapple with both physical and mental struggles that come from himself, his past strained relationship with his father and the situations he finds himself in along the way.
Don’t go into Ad Astra expecting a full on “save the world” disaster movie. This is very much for sci-fi fans who like their science fiction to be about human themes. 80% of the running time is dedicated to Roy’s personal journey and most of his dialogue is voiceover narration. The main themes of Ad Astra are that of human connection and the sins of the father, both of which are explored heavily. Unusually for a space film, the representation of exploration is very negative, especially regarding the impact that it has on people’s lives. But this is a good choice, because despite the pessimistic overtones, the story is ultimately built on a positive ideal of humanity that rejects selfishness and embraces both relationships and emotions.
The one issue with the film’s storytelling is that it sometimes feels distracted. Though the narrative is straightforward, the movie will on occasion get side-tracked by an action set-piece, a side character or a bit of side plotting. The supporting cast of characters are not very prominent (though actors like Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland do good with what they are given), so the focus that gets placed on them feels unwarranted and although the brief moments of action keep the story lively and do not feel too out of place, they are by far the least interesting parts of the film overall. If these moments were removed and the entire film had just been about Roy and his singular journey, then the introspective tone would have been more effective due to constantly being present. Also, revelations about Clifford McBride’s character make him ultimately too unlikeable to be as sympathetic as intended, even if the film thankfully does not try to make him a good guy.
What makes the film work overall is Brad Pitt and the lead character. Pitt is remarkable in this film, as he gives one of his most vulnerable and emotional performances to date despite also being very subdued. Roy himself is an incredibly relatable and sympathetic character, as he is wracked with being unable to connect with people because of his stoic and dedicated “work first” personality. Throughout the film, his viewpoint on his father is challenged and amalgamated and it culminates in something quite heart-breaking. The way his journey concludes did throw me off somewhat, but I also found it to be quite satisfying to witness.
James Gray’s direction is also a major benefit. One strength kept from Z is the stunning visuals and the perfect pacing. The 2 hours fly by and Hoyte Van Hoytema shows why he’s one of the best DP’s in the business. The cinematography is gorgeous and the direction keeps up the investment, even when not much is happening. The only time the direction does falter is during the action scenes, as whilst not bad, they are shakier than the rest of the film.
Though Ad Astra could have benefitted from a simpler story and feels like an edit away from a full masterpiece, it is still an emotionally engaging watch and has a fantastic central character that keeps it afloat. It is worthwhile if you want to see a blockbuster with a sense of ambition and emotion behind it.