Ad Astra

Directed By James Gray

Starring – Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga

The Plot – Astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.

Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong adult language

POSITIVES

– Stinging sound mixing. My respect for a space film that channels the absence of sound accordingly is far greater than a film that tries to pass off blaring volume as a substitute for a script’s inability to craft earned anxiety, and the former can be said for “Ad Astra”. Articulately channeling the isolation and immensity of space, the intense sequences put us front-and-center in the suit alongside of our protagonist, giving us a rich audible vibrancy of authentication that other space movies can’t maintain consistently. Saying that this is a quiet film might not appeal to a mass audience, but it’s my belief that Gray and Bradley were going for an immersive quality to the setting that audibly articulates a distance in space where no one can hear you scream, and that element plays wonderfully in the many adversities that Pitt and crew endure throughout the longest road trip ever put to film.

– False advertising. Another negative sounding positive comes from the marketing team’s inability to sell this picture for what it really was, which resulted in no shortage of pleasant surprises for me in all of its thought-provoking human commentary. Depicted as a science fiction thriller through the cosmos, the finished product itself is a character study on the boundaries of interaction, grief, and especially love, bringing forth a slow-burn cerebral undoing that gave me much more rewards than a by-the-numbers action film ever could. There’s definitely action sequences in the movie, but 90% of them are the ones shown in the trailers, and even then they never stick around long enough to dominate or take away from the poignancy of its vital importance.

– Useful narration. I could be in the minority here, but I felt that “Ad Astra” is a movie that earns its narration, for the way it illustrates what the visual storytelling refuses to commit to. Sure, there are scenes on the ship where Pitt’s mental elaboration paints what we already interpreted, but it’s really in his past dynamics with his ex-wife and estranged father that allows us to crack open his psyche and absorb the kind of feelings that reside within from no shortage of mistakes that he frequently regrets. The editing of flashback sequences only appear sparingly, so some audible dialogue that novelizes the value in deconstructing Pitt’s character is one that I greatly appreciated, especially for the way its audible capacity is presented. Throughout the film, this narration is deposited with a slight echo, giving off the impression of the full spectrum when it comes to his character’s position inside of the space suit. In addition to this, it also further paints the poison that comes from his career obsession, and the many ways that it has destroyed his chance at a normal life.

– As a science fiction picture. The best kind of science fiction films to me are the ones that bridge the gaps fruitfully between our current landscape and the future in the film, which feels closer than we think initially. Aside from some outstanding world building, which includes a sampling of some off-in-the-distance familiar product placement, the film also values a social commentary that is cherished by me for being “Hopeful and disastrous”. Instead of giving us a post-apocalyptic rendering, the film feels more effective in giving us slight deviations from our world, in a way that colorfully paints our similarities, all the while giving food for thought towards our differences. It treads its creative feet as a smart science fiction film instead of a cool one, and this unshakeable presence of a subgenre surprisingly feels more accurate because of its creative restraint.

– Variety of conflict. This script constantly evolves, bringing forth a series of adversities and even frights that I truly wasn’t expecting, but one that kept me invested to the sometimes arduous pacing of the film. A lot like life in this regard, the mission at hand sometimes becomes slightly skewed, and antagonism materializes in the form of conflict spontaneity that tests this group of astronauts in unforeseen circumstances. What’s valuable is that none of these set pieces feel hollow or tacked-on to the rest of the film surrounding it. They transition in a way that feels honest and even in some cases pre-conditioned to the exposition that gave us pieces of speculation before they come forth. It keeps the anticipation and anxiety firmly gripped in to the integrity of the picture, and succeeds in mastering a level of vulnerability that makes space undefeated in that regard.

– Human themes, big stakes. Grey has always been known for taking these big epic surroundings, and boiling them down to relatable eye level, thanks in whole to these reflective themes that his audience goes through every day. There are many to dissect in “Ad Astra”, but the ones that feel the most prominent to me deal with workplace dependability, forgiveness, and the fear that we have in becoming our parents. The last one is mentioned unabashedly in dialogue, but the way the shot compositions elaborate this paranoia gives something unique and visually receptive to that fear. For instance, there’s one scene where Pitt is in front of us, staring at a video of his father right in front of the camera. As the camera moves upward, the screen of the father slowly takes over the face of the son, and soon this humbling juxtaposition gives visual way to the quote in the movie “The sins of the father soon become the sins of the son”.

– Breathtaking cinematography. I saved my two favorite aspects of the film for last because their consistency in excellence alone kept this from ever becoming a disappointing film. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has crafted some gems in the form of 2017’s “Dunkirk”, 2014’s “Interstellar”, and 2013’s “Her”, but his work in “Ad Astra” feels more prominently eclipsing of those past counterparts because of the way he moves elaborately with his angles to move the image towards crowding. The shots of the planets transfix us in all of their colorful immensity, and the absorbing color schemes within these structurally complex set designs better helps emit the tension of the atmosphere more fruitfully than words or actions ever could. When you have a master of the lens this impressively gifted, you wish you could pause specific frames within the movie, and hang them on the walls of your house to gaze at for decades to come, but thankfully Hoyte’s work has already done that, giving us no shortage of gorgeous scenery and unshakeable focus to capture the immensity of our solar system. It’s my early favorite for best cinematography this year.

– The Richter scale. Musical composer Max Richter’s constant influence over the integrity of the picture gives us these classically rendered compositions that build the anticipation for the inevitable wonderfully. Max’s electronica-tinged opera relies on a lot of persistence in volume, feeling equally effective as any other musical score this year, despite his incorporation sounding at half of the volume. It throbs away at these scenes like a riveted heartbeat that beats stronger with each second it’s put through physical intensity, and while Van Hoytema visually stimulates us with imagery that weakens us in the knees, it’s Richter’s audible emphasis that gives us the bed of gravity to float on. Together the two make an unstoppable duo, which will bring forth depression the next time they work on a film without one or the other.

NEGATIVES

– Weak performances. I know, this one is especially shocking when you consider the talented big name cast that fills its ensemble. Unfortunately, Gray’s weakest stance as a director comes from the complete lack of emotional resonance that he pulls from his protagonist and Tommy Lee Jones, making both feel terribly miscast in their respective roles. For Pitt, it’s his constant stone-face that keeps us from fully investing in these gut-punch scenes involving a scarred boy searching for his father, but we never embrace the hurt because neither does Pitt, and it leaves the big payoff for the movie feeling cold and underwhelming because he never loses sight of the tough guy demeanor. Beyond this, the use of these big name stars like Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler and even Natasha Lyonne felt insulting for how little screen time they are actually given. Pitt is certainly the main character, but everyone else is a glorified cameo, with most of which adding so little importance to the value of the film.

– Disappointing ending. Aside from the emotionally vapid performances of Pitt and Jones, which I previously mentioned, the conflict resolution to me didn’t work for an array of reasons. MAJOR SPOILERS. DO NOT GO ANY FURTHER IF YOU WISH NOT TO BE SPOILED. The first deals with the scene in question between father and son. Terribly acted, yes, but it feels rushed considering how committed Jones is one second to staying on board, yet in the next he is walking out with his son. Secondly is the conflict resolution itself. I would never promise to be a science major, but does blowing a power grid that is giving off power surges to planets away sound like a good idea to you? I get destroying the product, but something made of so much energy might not be a good idea to release into the environment. Finally, after Pitt lets go of his father during an exchange in space, Jones floats out to darkness to die. Pitt later mentions in the closing moments that he has no nightmares now that everything is resolved. I guess his conscience allowed him to forgive himself for basically honoring his father’s suicide wish. It points to aspects with the script that caused me to do a double take, and really left the big payoff for the movie feeling like the scene where nothing adds up.

My Grade: 8/10 or B

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