Title: Ad Astra
Release Date: September 20th, 2019
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: James Gray
Release Format: Theatrical
Science-fiction films can be spectacles of grand ideas or explosive action. Each has its own merits and genre-defining moments to propel the genre forward. Ad Astra dares to balance both, a concoction of interstellar set pieces and internal character struggles. At its core, this is a character study dressed in a futuristic background, a world full of inventive design blended into a believable reality. By blending these two themes, Ad Astra is a blockbuster with deeper connotations that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a major of the U.S. Space Command has spent years battling an incapability to connect with the world on a human level. After his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) ventured on a mission many years before to discover the existence of extraterrestrial life, he’s never been the same. Many moons later and with a new threat of global power surges, McBride is tasked to find the cause. An adventure into the furthest reaches of the galaxy that may lead him to answers about his father.
Daddy Issues… In Space
Despite its beautiful cinematography (by cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema) and expertly crafted set-pieces, Ad Astra is surprisingly restraint. Director James Gray uses this intergalactic setting to tell a personal story. Despite the impending doom of power surges that are causing massive casualties, the drama remains fixed on Pitt’s character. Pitt manages to convey a wide array of emotions through mere expression alone. Remaining unusually calm, despite certain situations, his action shows that of a man on the edge.
Beneath his cool exterior is a time bomb that is waiting to blow and with his past bought to fruition, it lights the fuse. Pitt has shown many ranges of talent recently (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood being a notable case) and expressing his character growth through mere body language is a feat not many could pull. He holds a cold persona, unable to fully grasp simple human emotions after being so closed off for so many years. The weight of his father’s disappearance all those years ago being emotional baggage, weighing him down and crushing him.
Punctuated throughout our frequent voiceovers, unleashing McBride’s inner monologues. Unfortunately, these come across as rather simplified affairs and break up the pacing of many scenes causing the weakest aspect of the film. It’s evident these were incorporated so a more mainstream audience could find a means to latch onto Pitt’s portrayal of a detached man.
Other performances fail to provide the same flair. Donald Sutherland appears to accompany Pitt for a brief yet serviceable amount of time and Liv Tyler is given nothing more than remain obscured within the background. Tommy Lee Jones as Pitt’s father, however, manages to provide a remarkable role in such a small amount of screen time. Nuanced perfectly together, the pair steal the screen and with very few scenes without them, that is the majority.
Oh, What A Beautiful World.
Parallel to all the small scale character drama is frequently injected beats of action and suspense. Beginning with one of the most impressive set-pieces this year featuring Pitt’s character encountering one of the power surges first hand. This, in turn, causes him to experience an extended free-falling sequence that remains tense, frantic and shows us what type of character McBride is. Within the first five minutes, we are given a perfect sample of everything this film hopes to achieve. Accompanying this are Mad-Max style lunar chase sequences, tense ‘encounters’ and short bursts of brutal intensity. It never relies too heavily upon its action genre tropes, but still keeps its foot firmly in the door.
One thing that does remain consistent through the character moments and the action-heavy scenes though is the gorgeous visuals. Directed with ease, Gray has attempted to envision a future within the realms of possibility. With space travel being a part of everyday life in this universe, he uses this to showcase beautiful landscapes. Exciting sequences go for an up-close approach, throwing you straight into the fray while quieter moments display eye-pleasing, sweeping vistas. Ad Astra is beautiful. Gray’s world-building is portrayed so subtly with little to no exposition, it’s incredibly easy to be swept away.
The soundtrack by composer Max Richter marinates the visuals with an understated style that avoids the blaring extremities of Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score. By being a smaller scale, the intimacy is enhanced, merging perfectly with Ad Astra’s character-driven narrative. The sound design follows the same suit, using a realistic interpretation for the lack of oxygen in space. By relying on the sounds of vibrations, it adds an intensity to many scenes that a lesser director would have buried under a plethora of noise.
Ad Astra creates a realistic depiction of what a possible future for space travel could be. Gray’s direction consistently builds upon itself as the story plays out. Through subtle interventions with the world’s mechanics, characters relay information without resorting to exposition. How the concept of this potential future came into fruition is never explained, but how it works is conveyed with ease. The vast nothingness that is space is given its own identity here and given time to marinate with the audience. The world is used as a character in this film, learning more about it as the story plays out, but remains second nature to the character drama that pulsates at the forefront.
Verdict: In a wealth of reboots, remakes, and franchises, hardcore science-fiction is hard to come by. Ad Astra proves that a balanced medium can be found between the bunch. Featuring a career highlight from Brad Pitt and perfectly backed by Tommy Lee Jones, this is a character drama not to be missed. Set against the backdrop of space and injected with even pacing of set-pieces, Ad Astra is a gorgeous visual adventure, an expertly directed space opera and one of 2019’s best films.
- Character study played incredibly by Brad Pitt
- Extraordinary world design
- Beautiful cinematography and subtle score
- Perfectly balance set-pieces and drama
- Some underutilized performances
- Voice over becomes meandering and on the nose