Director: James Gray
Writers: James Gray and Ethan Gross
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Genre: Drama / Sci-Fi
Astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) undertakes a mission across the solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father (Jones) and his doomed expedition that now potentially threatens the future of both the earth and the universe.
I recall when I wrote my review of World War Z all those years ago I mentioned that it suffered from the conflict of having a genre that is usually confined to more low budget films, but having a Hollywood megastar as its protagonist meant it was a film that had all the predictable and clichéd narrative developments that tend to come with that. Well, Brad Pitt may leave the zombies behind to focus on space travel for Ad Astra, but because he is the star of the show it cannot help but face some very similar problems of narrative and identity.
Whether this is merely a criticism of Ad Astra or indeed mainstream films as a whole is a much bigger debate for another time, but when watching Ad Astra it does feel that because it has a Hollywood megastar as its protagonist and therefore is inevitably classed as a ‘blockbuster’ there is an unfortunate element of compromise to the narrative that does at times undermine its main themes. Unfortunately, unless a film is directed by Christopher Nolan (as his films always make money, so he deservedly has carte blanche), if it has a substantial budget the producers get a little nervous if things are a little too cerebral. Hollywood’s big producers do regard the average film fan as an idiot, so if they are letting a film cost a certain amount of money and star someone like Brad Pitt, they want to make sure that there are enough bums on seats, and so they want make sure it has universal appeal.
This has unfortunately produced a film that has some stunning moments, but also some blatant and jarring narrative compromises that stick out like a sore thumb. However, the so-so moments are considerably outnumbered by the good, and so thankfully do not ruin what is still a wonderfully sombre and cerebral sci-fi film that effectively examines some very pertinent themes and ideas. Ad Astra very much features a character driven narrative, as our protagonist pretty much crosses the entire length of the solar system to uncover secrets and revelations that threaten the very future of our planet, while simultaneously taking our protagonist on a very personal and cathartic journey of his own. What initially drives the narrative may well be a threat to our entire solar system (so quite a big deal), but this is just a vehicle for the much deeper, personal and quite honestly far more interesting and universal themes about the human condition that are examined as part of this intergalactic expedition.
It is when Ad Astra is at its most intimate and personal that it is at its best as it very effectively takes on very relatable and personal themes such as loneliness, family, regret and tortured masculinity. The camera is often fixed on Brad Pitt’s face, with his understated and sombre performance perfectly depicting his character’s inner torment and conflicting emotions. He may spend a lot of the film and his life quite literally isolated, but he actually feels most isolated when surrounded by people, and this is certainly an experience and feeling many can relate to. He has always been taught to keep his emotions under control, which may be appropriate for his chosen career path, but at what cost is this in his ability to form human relationships in real life? We are often given an insight into the protagonist’s mind by philosophical statements and questions reminiscent of Terence Malick’s wonderfully cerebral war film The Thin Red Line. Admittedly sometimes the narration does feel a slightly over written and patronisingly dumbed down, with a little too much unnecessary explanation of what is being shown on screen, or some of the film’s attempts at allegory being completely sign posted or over-explained to the audience. For example, while watching I did think that one of the key themes of the film was the sins of the father visiting on the son, but then this was slightly spoiled by Brad Pitt’s voiceover saying that exact phrase!
Ad Astra is also a wonderfully cinematic film that is an immersive experience on many levels that deserves to be seen on the big screen; the sound design is incredible, and this and the narrative’s main themes are perfectly captured by the ever-reliable Max Richter’s wonderfully solemn and brooding score that captures perfectly the feelings of isolation and loneliness that the protagonist experiences. The film is also visually stunning, with James Gray’s direction and camerawork often suitably low key to reflect the films contemplational mood, and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is also sublime, often with the visual tone of the film being vastly different depending on which planet the particular scene is set around.
As the narrative progresses and our protagonist gets closer to the answers he seeks on both levels, the pacing and tone remains suitably measured and generally understated. Though there is the occasional action sequence that feels out of the place or the occasional moment when things are explained a little too much, there is still no denying that Ad Astra grips and engages until its very satisfying conclusion.
It is certainly very refreshing to a see big budget film take on more mature themes; Ad Astra is occasionally let down by its tendency to try and compromise a little too much, but overall it is still a highly immersive and deeply engaging cinematic experience for all the senses.