Space films have become something of a genre of their own lately. They offer potential for great visual spectacle and drama like Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’, or more introspective sagas like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’. After the divisive ‘The Lost City Of Z’, writer and director James Gray has set his sights on the sky with ‘Ad Astra’, bringing together both spectacle and sentiment.
In the not-too-distant future, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, ‘Allied’, ‘The Big Short’) is issued with a top-secret mission: travel to Mars to send a message to his father (Tommy Lee Jones, ‘Jason Bourne’, ‘Lincoln’), who went missing 30 years ago during a mission to the edge of the solar system to discover evidence of other life in the universe. But when Roy arrives on Mars, he learns there’s much more to the story than he was first told, and sets out to find out his father and the truth about what happened to him.
The release of ‘Ad Astra’ has been a troublesome one; its date has been pushed back a number of times. In explanation, Gray claimed: “You know usually when you see a science-fiction movie, there are a number of shots that don’t look very good? I do not want to be up against a release date and have stuff looking really bad.” If that’s genuinely the reason, then it was for the best that the pushbacks occurred, as the film is a collation of truly beautiful shots. Artistic to its maximum potential, the film is a companion piece with ‘Blade Runner 2049’, awash with futuristic fluorescent oranges and blues. The film utilises images of space that we’re familiar with and cleverly uses them to create an artificial nostalgia; the best example of this is the sequence on the moon, with shots virtually in monochrome, reminiscent of our impressions from the Apollo 11 mission. The camera is wielded with precision and accuracy by Gray and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (who conveniently also lensed ‘Interstellar’).
A collation of truly beautiful shots, the camera is wielded with precision and accuracy by Gray and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.
Sadly, Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross (TV’s ‘Fringe’) don’t wield their pen with the same level of precision. While the setup is spectacular, the further into the film we travel, the less cohesive the story becomes. Their firm hold loosens and Roy’s actions become questionable, and then inconsequential. Sadly, the film segues from sci-fi into fantasy, to a point where Roy’s return home to Earth becomes a necessity because of its unbelievability. The third act certainly feels a little too convenient; a neat, studio-friendly way of wrapping up an epic odyssey.
Even when it strays, the film’s biggest saving grace is Brad Pitt. Controlled and rigorous in his intent, his performance pairs perfectly with Gray’s direction. He is our hero; he stands as the backbone to the film, providing the necessary emotional and dramatic components while spending so much time solo on screen. There are smatterings of other cinematic gems - Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler - but none are present long enough to become a real companion to Roy. It’s one of Pitt’s most impressive role to date, offering great depth and range.
‘Ad Astra’ is about as art house as Hollywood cinema gets; disguising a metaphysical drama as an action-packed sci-fi adventure is a clever move for James Gray. While not perfect, it’s consistently entertaining whilst offering an introspective investigation on how parents influence their children. While a journey to the outer realms of our solar system, ‘Ad Astra’ is also an exploration of the human heart.