director: James Gray | Runtime: 2h 2min | drama, Sci-fi, Mystery
In the near future humanities search for intelligent life is more present than ever. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) must go in search for his missing father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), whose mission into deep space – known as The Lima Project – might now be threatening life on Earth.
In recent years we’ve been spoiled by intelligent, beautiful and brilliant science fiction films. Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Annihilation (2018) are standouts for numerous reasons, only going back a few more years for Ex Machina and Interstellar (both 2014). It’s become much harder for space orientated films to impress as the bar for quality keeps being raised, and after the science-heavy plot of The Martian in 2015 it isn’t just big ideas audiences are looking for, but grounded and realistic representations of outer space that shy away from hyperbolic versions of our future. So when director/co-writer James Gray claimed that Ad Astra is “the most realistic depiction of space ever”, he raised the bar again for expectations.
I doubt many of us can actually confirm what is actual and what is sci-fi in many films, but years of documentaries and the space operas of Star Wars and Star Trek have given most of us a loose idea of what is science and which part is fiction. For many, the travel aspect of Ad Astra will be an element that solidifies the ‘realism’ of the film, as much like the journeys astronauts have to make nowadays, it’s long, lonely, surrounded by incomprehensible amounts of space.
The physical journey Roy must take is certainly a long one. Whilst working on an enormous antenna, the Earth is hit by a power surge, causing massive damage to the instrument and nearly killing Roy in the process. He’s called into a high ranking military meeting, and told that after 16 years they believe his father might still be alive, and the anti-matter engine on-board could be the cause of the surges. As they get more and more disruptive to Earth, he must travel to Mars, within it’s underground base a long range communication device remains unaffected, and they believe Roy’s personal connection with Clifford may assist in getting a response.
It’s unfortunate in the early stages that the science around the anti-matter engine and why it’s causing the surges is only briefly touched upon, as much of the success of Ad Astra really relies on the grounded nature of the journey Roy takes. Large portions of the narrative are simply space travel, he first has to take a commercial flight to the Moon as a stop over before the long haul to Mars. He has a tourist infested landing, and it does have a brief word to say about the commercialisation of space travel and how notions of grandiose and wonder are lost to the money-making schemes, but an odd foray across the surface to the next ship explores the fragmented ownership of the Moon, with small conflicts over the areas outside the safe zone, and even brief pirate encounters – this is where the film has its lowest dip. There are two sequences throughout – this Moon journey and a minor distraction on the way to Mars – that really feel unnecessary and almost banal. They don’t add much to the narrative, and thematically seem irrelevant. They only serve as action scenes to up the pace, but the film’s slow burn makes this feel a little needless.
Roy as a character is an interesting area as he is similar to the depiction of Neil Armstrong in the biopic First Man (2018); emotionally closed off, stoic, focused entirely on work but all down to a former pain. It’s pretty clear that Roy is meant to be a more futuristic version of Armstrong, both to intrigue and detriment. Being so close to the biopic of arguably one of the most famous humans of all time does make Pitt’s character feel less special and original, but certainly played excellently by the lead. Much of travel time is either spent alone or surrounded by unfamiliar passing characters, so Roy doesn’t interact a whole lot during the travelling sections and during this we’re given plenty of narration – which again is both intriguing and detrimental to the film.
It’s certainly well voiced by Pitt, and many of the monologues are quiet meditations on his situation, the journey he’s travelling and many existential thoughts. It does work much of the time, and it adds much depth to a fairly simple adventure that Roy needs to go on, it’s clear that when his father left him at 16 to embark on the Lima Project it took it’s toll. A deeply intimate look a father and son relationship through the eye’s of abandonment, even in the vastness of space Roy is tethered to his core unable to understand why his father left. As it goes on, however, some of the narration becomes stilted and awkward, with questions asked with no subtly and the wording of a highschool bands vocalist. Even through this, there is an interesting juxtaposition of the void of space with Roy trying to make sense of the situation he’s in, and whether travelling billions of miles will end the search for answers he so desperately needs.
By the time the credits roll, there will be one undeniable, inarguably fact about the film – it is beautiful. The cinematography, art direction, set construction, costumes and everything in between create a stunning visual world for Roy to traverse. If you take nothing else from Ad Astra, it’ll be James Gray’s wonderful eye for sci-fi aesthetic and like much of the story and existential themes, the visuals feel heavily inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and you’ll surely wonder if Mars was designed by Kubrick himself.
Throughout it does rely too heavily on easy tropes, particularly in the aforementioned action scenes. Even the quiet mediations at the heart of the film lean almost into cliche from time to time, and although a satisfying end it does feel like the bow is too neatly tied, that more ambiguity would suit the previous two hours more, though still worth the journey even if it doesn’t reach the heights of some more memorable modern classics.