Review: ‘Ad Astra’

Ad Astra one-sheet poster

Ad Astra | James Gray | September 20th, 2019

Similar to last year’s space epic First Man, 2019’s Ad Astra is a film that centers on inner character conflict and growth. Whereas Ryan Gosling’s First Man was a historical Hollywood drama, Ad Astra takes place in the fictional near future. While both films are different in a majority of ways, they similarly hone in on their central character’s relationship with themselves and those around them. Space travel is just the catalyst for an introspective take on the loneliness of those who travel the stars with Brad Pitt turning in one of his best, if not his most muted performances to date.

Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) has cleverly disguised a father and son character study in a gorgeous space travel package. There’s a moon rover chase sequence, a thrilling escape from Mars, and a beautiful expedition to Neptune that left me genuinely in awe. It’s quite possibly one of the most realistic depictions of space travel ever put to film. The film opens with Roy in the middle of a space walk on a space station that is still connected to the Earth’s surface. After the station is struck by a large burst of energy that wreaks havoc on the station and crew, government officials approach Roy to have him investigate the supposed energy event/accident, as the threat is continuing and growing and may be linked to long-ago experiments on Neptune captained by Roy’s famous astronaut father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), thought dead for the last 30 years. Roy sets out to discover the true origin of the energy event and to confirm once and for all if his father is still alive.

Ad Astra still - Roy McBride in space

The opening sequence sets the stage for the type of focused, realistically shot action sequences that are sprinkled throughout the film. For every rousing action sequence though, there are inner monologues from Brad Pitt, which inform us of Roy’s inner turmoil. Roy’s father was a closed-off man, and Roy has become similar in his demeanor. The space program administers mood stabilizers to Roy and all other astronauts to deal with the constant pressures of their lives. This, in addition to his upbringing without his father, has ruined many of his relationships. His wife has recently left him due to the distance he has put between them over the years. After agreeing out of curiosity and morbid desire to escape,  Roy sets off on a multi-world mission, where he discovers the truth about the energy signal and his father’s disappearance.

Ad Astra still - Roy McBride in a recording booth

Although Ad Astra is certainly an epic space-noir exploration film, it has more in common with 2017’s Blade Runner 2049. Brad Pitt channels his inner Ryan Gosling in Ad Astra. Like Blade Runner 2049, the protagonist is more floating from one point to the next, while slowly discovering the central mystery of his own story. It’s also similarly muted and rather simple as a story. Characters enter and exit when they’re no longer necessary – such as Donald Sutherland, Natasha Lyonne, Ruth Negga, and Liv Tyler – while we’re with Roy on the entire journey to Neptune. The plot, although fairly straightforward, is never boring.

Every set and environment in Ad Astra lends something beautiful for you to look at. Brad Pitt’s spoken inner thoughts are insightful and quite necessary for his character. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema does a great job of setting up the visual effects with his camera movements. His and Gray’s use of light and shadow are also very impressive here, especially during the rover chase sequence on the Moon.

The story takes bits from Apocalypse Now, First Man, Interstellar, and certainly 2001: A Space Odyssey while still feeling like its own thing. It owes certain themes and ideas to other films, but still manages to stand out as one of the best space dramas in film history. It’s a technical achievement in its own right, with every shot looking borderline immaculate. Although the story is a bit flat in the second act, Brad Pitt’s commitment to the character, along with the set pieces, really make Ad Astra a worthwhile journey to go on.

Roy’s journey to possibly reunite with his father is cleverly packaged as a redemption story about human connection. The film speaks on our perpetually unsatisfied desire to learn more about the mysteries of the universe, while often sacrificing the very core relationships right in front of us.

Ad Astra still - Clifford McBride

Although the theme of the story is nothing new in cinema, it is told in such a unique way, that you can’t help but feel something after leaving the theater. Ad Astra might not be as profound as its story seems to think it is, but it still grips you along for the ride into the unknown. I’ll gladly watch Ad Astra again for the ride into deep space. It’s beautifully made, sad, and thought-provoking enough to earn its way into the pantheon of great science fiction space films.

Rating: 8.0/10