Review: Ad Astra

A great, slower paced and soulful sci-fi and space movies, Ad Astra is considered and contemplative with a strong central character, though has a fair few faults.

In the near future, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) survives a solar system-wide power surge event, emanating from Neptune and the Lima Project – which his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) led into space 16 years ago in order to find intelligent life. Roy is tasked with finding Clifford and the source of the surges, and struggles with obstructions both physical and psychological on his journey.

Director James Gray has called this a combination of Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to be fair it’s hard to argue with that (there are no space babies or casual racism)! What Gray has done (alongside co-writer Ethan Gross) is craft a gorgeous looking space set movie around what might otherwise be thought of as a clunky trope – the son who struggles to live up to his father, and the way that colours his life.

Gray recalibrates our recent expectations of space cinema, whether they be the hard sci-fi/metaphysical madness of Interstellar, the comedic and bombastic The Martian or the taut character focus of First ManThis film, while retaining a mix of genre nods and clever predictions, is in essence a combination of the human desire to explore and discover, and the conflicts and relationships between fathers and sons.

This might sound less interesting than what we’re used to, but you can make that judgement for yourselves. I thought it intelligently wove together psychological elements with a taste of realistic space exploration (and colonisation), and at times really accentuated the sheer emptiness and wonder of space. It feels like a character study at big budget level, a tough combination to get made by studios now compared to before.

Gray and Gross cleverly script in recurring psychological tests, which serve the dual purpose of predicting something that may arise in future exploration (isolation in deep space is likely to take its toll) and also giving us insight into Roy’s ironclad resolve and the degradation this faces from what the film throws at him. There is also some dry wit mixed in, though the film is not trying to entertain so much as dive deep into its lead.

The ending, sadly, is not perfect given what’s come before, and feels like it’s been tacked on from another movie, but the focus on lies, half truths and living up to a parent while remaining your own person are all strong elements, well acted and fleshed out by Roy’s narration, where other films might throw in action scenes and plenty of quips.

That’s not to say it’s all slow and ponderous – there’s a fair deal of tension as Roy’s journey begins in difficulty and gets harder from there as he ventures further from Earth. In turn, a surprising action sequence on the Moon almost evoked Mad Max: Fury Road, and injected menace as well as excitement. The rest of the film doesn’t really live up to that (including a strange detour into horror at one point), but then our focus is Roy, and not blowing things up.

I used the words contemplative and considered – but I’d also add soulful. It almost felt like an independent film that accidentally got a huge budget, an A list star and an expensive looking space setting. It’s also very introspective, and this might turn people away because they aren’t expecting that – but we spend lots of time with Roy questioning himself and wondering via narration about the matters at hand.

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You could argue this unsparing focus is to its detriment, as the film almost whimpers to its quite obvious conclusion, but in the main the rest is very interesting to watch, which is more can often be said for many space based films! What I took issue with was its hilariously inept handling of female characters, though I’ll mention that more when discussing the acting. What’s key to note is that a better handle on this, and a less obvious ending, might have elevated this further.

The effects are excellent and for once don’t have to do much except paint a galactic background, supporting and enhancing the near future Gray wants us to see. Tangibly realistic sets, adherence to space rules (no sound outside the ships, zero gravity, utilitarian space interiors) and evocative lighting from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who also lit Interstellar) not only make it feel more real, but give some locations a really arty, attractive look (the Mars base and the view from orbit around the immense Neptune are particular highlights).

Max Richter’s score (with assistance from Lorne Balfe) was very good too, supporting the performances and vistas without shouting over it all, and incorporating technological elements – almost echoing the symbiosis between technology and survival that the film highlights.

There aren’t many actors in this, and the main focus is of course Pitt, whose incredibly minimal and quiet performance is really excellent. He’s often thought not to have much range (unfairly), but holds your gaze as he skilfully depicts Roy’s self control and poise, before letting it begin to slip and crumble into emotional and psychological fragments.

Everyone else is essentially playing a bit part, though Tommy Lee Jones made more effort than in a fair amount of his later career, both quietly touching and sinister as a man defined (rightly or wrongly) by his decisions and actions. Donald Sutherland enigmatically appears as a old colleague of Clifford’s, but his slightly aloof, knowing role is simply not long enough to justify his casting.

Finally, we move onto the two (poorly served) women, on different sides of the coin. Tyler is dealt the trite stereotype of Roy’s former wife in flashbacks – there’s nothing for her to do, most flashbacks are silent and you have to ask what does it serve, other than to hammer the point home that Roy is bad at connecting with others? Her abilities are completely wasted in such a reductive role.

It’s a real shame, more so given First Man’s poor handling of Neil Armstrong’s wife last year – characters could have been gender swapped, and this is an indictment of the otherwise intelligent script. Ruth Negga is only slightly better served as a commander Roy encounters, who largely serves to be sidelined by his arrival and then as a source of exposition.

Ad Astra is not a perfect film, but it really excels at providing something more slow paced and nuanced than sci-fi cinema has (recently) given us – it’s not action packed, but that’s to its benefit, and is only really let down by its poor ending and even poorer female characters.

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