Ad Astra, 2019.
Directed by James Gray.
Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, John Ortiz, Greg Bryk, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, John Finn, Anne McDaniels, LisaGay Hamilton, Kimmy Shields, Alyson Reed, Ravi Kapoor, Bobby Nish, and Natasha Lyonne.
Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.
Ad Astra is assuredly going to be a polarizing experience, although a breathtakingly gorgeous one regardless of where you thoughts land (the cinematographer happens to be Christopher Nolan regular Hoyte Van Hoytema, a logical choice considering his stellar work on Interstellar). Not unusual for the genre, it’s a cold and distant film about an emotionally detached astronaut, which will always undoubtedly be a challenge to some, but, in this case especially, also reap rewards for those eager enough to unpack what is certainly a complex second half where daddy issues and sons suffering the sins of fathers floats into full focus.
Fitting right in with director and co-writer James Gray’s last effort, the tremendous Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is about discovery and exploration consuming the mind, in this case involving a son abandoned by his father to continue working on a special project seeking to make contact with new intelligent life forms on Neptune. Roy (Brad Pitt) always wanted to follow in his father Cliff’s (Tommy Lee Jones) footsteps and carry out missions together, ending up doing so anyway after the disappearance 30 years ago, living in the shadow of his accomplishments. Among being one of Mars’s first visitors, Cliff dedicated his life not to family but to his journeys and work intended to better Earth.
Following a distressing power surge that takes the lives of thousands of people (not to mention tossing Roy skydiving from outer space right back down to earth with a parachute in a heart-stopping sequence that is somehow only about the third most impressive visual set piece here), his commanders take note of some findings and connect the cosmic attacks to Neptune, indicating that Cliff might actually still be alive. Subsequently, Roy is tasked with a top-secret mission to travel to Mars (this near future is loaded with intergalactic military conflict, meaning that this is the closest he can get) and send radio transmissions to the derelict Neptune vessel, hoping to spark signs of life, a conversation, and ultimately find answers and a solution to these ongoing devastating occurrences.
Ad Astra is first and foremost a psychological character study of Roy, complete with hard-boiled narration and consistent mental analysis following various action-packed scenarios en route to his destination. However, James Gray (collaborating with Fringe writer Ethan Gross) is aware that this project is different than anything he’s ever done before and does require a decent amount of futuristic world-building beyond Roy’s existential pondering and personal quest that happens to be tied to the potential fate of humanity. What ensues are a number of flashy segments (early on is a stunning bit involving dune buggies duking it out sprinting across the moon resembling Mad Max), usually where supporting characters die. Soon after the chaos, there is always a psychological analysis, often expanding on how distant Roy is, how calm and reserved he remains during and after a disaster, and for how intimate his objective is, to him this is all still just a job. The scenes themselves might feel a little disconnected and superfluous to the rest of the narrative, but they do have a purposeful function in addition to eliciting thrills.
It may not be your traditional blockbuster, but Ad Astra puts most of them to shame; there’s a zero-gravity knife fight where Roy goes all Bad Asstra trying to defend himself, all captured meticulously feeling like nothing else out there in the realm of big studio filmmaking. Keep in mind, this is just the first hour, as once the audience is settled into the world on display and the narrative reaches Mars, James Gray shifts into where he is most comfortable as a storyteller, doubling down on aforementioned existentialism and character dynamics.
The outstanding photography doesn’t just relate to space either; Brad Pitt’s facial expressions and eyes tell a story itself (there’s a great touch seeing his line of sight veer away from his significant other as narration discusses alienating one’s self from things that don’t matter). Equally fascinating (and I’m sure with deeper meaning that I would love to further analyze on a rewatch) are holographic environmental backgrounds whenever Roy has time to himself that enhance the mood of an already moody picture; a film dripping with alternating color palettes and heavy lighting techniques. Then there is Neptune, which is never really explored on-screen since everyone seems to fancy portraying Mars, which is utilized to great effect here in an emotionally complex climax that involves more exquisite imagery. All of this is assisted by Max Richter’s synthetic and minimalistic score, appropriately tuned to Roy’s state of mind.
This is a story about, obsession, closure, unsolved mysteries, the cycle of pain abandonment can inflict, forgiveness, and empathy. James Gray masterfully builds tension alongside an intriguing universe; if Cliff is indeed alive, the sound of Tommy Lee Jones’ distinct no-nonsense voice in the present day is sure to send shivers down the spine as hauntingly chilling as the nonexistent emotional state of Roy. Ad Astra is expansive but fine-tuned, immersive but withdrawn, all as it builds to something anticlimactic yet irresistibly engaging. It will stick with you as long as the distance between Earth and Neptune.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com