REVIEW: Ad Astra

Once upon a time on Neptune.

In the near future, the astronaut, Major Roy McBride, ascends on a quest into deep space where, on the edge of Earth’s solar system, a series of mysterious power surges begin to threaten human life.

The 2019 resident space movie for Oscar consideration, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt in a visually stunning exploration of an odyssey beyond the stars. With Pitt coming off the back of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was shocked to find a similar, tonally, Pitt’s two newest projects jelled.

Brad Pitt stars in “Ad Astra”.
(Francois Duhamel/Disney 2019)

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect going into Ad Astra. I had barely watched a trailer, seen a poster, read news articles or even looked up a fall synopsis. All I knew was that the film was a space-based adventure film starring Pitt as an astronaut who may or may not be looking for his lost father in the cosmos. And yes, basically, that is what the film is about: an astronaut searching for his lost father in space. Yet, the film adopted a tone and atmosphere that I was not anticipating.

Looking back at the astronaut films that have popularised the genre for modern audiences, from Duncan Jones’ existentialism nightmare, Moon, to Alfonso Cuaron’s masterfully visual thrill piece, Gravity, to Christopher Nolan’s introspective sci-fi drama, Interstellar, to Ridley Scott’s isolation comedy, The Martian, and, most recently, Damien Chazelle’s cold character study, First Man, it is effortlessly interesting to see how James Gray’s Ad Astra fits into this revitalised cinematic age. From a visual standpoint, I would have to say Ad Astra shares a great deal with Gravity and, particularly, Interstellar which was shot by the same cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema – to which I believe to be no coincidence. Similarly, Ad Astra felt like it shared a lot in common with Nolan’s cold introspective on displacement from time and space. Adopting a few of the visual mannerisms of Interstellar only helped with establishing Ad Astra in its themes of isolation and separation. Furtherly, these themes became more visible from one’s reflection on other films such as First Man, Moon and, yes, even The Martian. The through line we find here between these films shines obvious when given appropriate attention. These astronaut films all explore the human condition when one is displaced in an existential manner through mind, body and soul from humanity. And so, these repetitive though effective themes are expressed through thrillers, comedies, hard Sci-Fi’s or, in the case of Ad Astra and First Man, meditative character studies.

So, to bring it full circle, I was surprised by what Ad Astra had to offer me and was even more shocked to have left the cinema feeling a similar way that I did leaving Pitt’s recent endeavour, Once Upon a Time in HollywoodAd Astra was a slow burn that focused largely on character over story. The film was a piece made to study the psyche of a human being, not in touch with humanity and seeking a means to reconnect. The story hence required a steady pace that never overly spiked or overly dropped. Sure the film had sudden bursts of entertainment but it never felt too heavy of an inclusion when action and horror entered the mix. In total, I really enjoyed the slow moving nature of Ad Astra, most notably for the main man, himself: Pitt.

I genuinely think this may be one of Pitt’s best performances to date. Similar to subtlety of Ryan Gosling’s performance of Neil Armstrong in First Man, Pitt boarded on the silent but disturbed. He really carried his character and, consequently, the film through and through. Also, on note of performances, as much as I would like to equally praise Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga in their supporting roles, it was the work of Tommy Lee Jones that left the biggest impression on me in terms of supporting cast. Jones really gave some haunting material for audiences to chew on.

Also, from a technical standpoint, Ad Astra was incredible. I am sure I do not need to go into every field of detail, but the visual effects, score and editing all need specific praise. I would though like turn attention more exclusively to the cinematography which, as I said was very Interstellar, but also had me very reminiscent on Roger Deakins’ work for Blade Runner 2049. Right down to the lighting and colour schemes, Ad Astra was one of the best looking films I have seen all year, maybe even the best. I loved how cold and still this movie could make you feel but then it would also give a warm haze that, although would feel obscure, would never feel unnatural. The sound design and subsequent editing also did a grade A job in every aspect of making real the surroundings and environment of the astronauts and their plight.

I think though the most fascinating critique I could make of this film was the fact that it resembled so pristinely, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Now, I only learnt after my screening of the film that Gray intended for Ad Astra to share narrative similarities to the novel, but damn did this film feel like just as much an adaptation of Heart of Darkness as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now did. The chronicling of a character’s slow descent into madness as they seek that of a respected hero gone insane and threatening the livelihood of humanity. I honestly believe the best way to read Ad Astra as a film thematically is to align it with Heart of Darkness. All the elements are present in having this story tick to the same angles and corners of Conrad’s genius inspection of exploration and insanity. I think it better and more salvageable for Ad Astra to observe this link rather than the other link, that being between this film and it’s astronaut predecessors.

On that note, I do think that after the slew of character study astronaut odyssey films as I listed previously, Ad Astra did not really add much new of value. Looking at it as a spiritual adaptation of Heart of Darkness is more interesting and fulfilling than just observing it for what it truly appears to be – another space man film made to give its lead actor a platform for praise. Truthfully, there is a lot to love about Ad Astra but also a lot to bypass – if you observe it from a specific angle.

On the upside, I really enjoyed this film. Amongst Gray’s direction and the excellent, innovative worldbuilding at play, Ad Astra was an inviting experience. Would I say its particularly special? Not really, but it did its job and managed to be smart whilst doing so. This is no basic film and is still of highly intelligent pedigree, it just lacked some originality to really make it shine.

Ad Astra is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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