REVIEW: “Ad Astra”

AdPOSTER

What a time to be Brad Pitt. Not only has he delivered some of the year’s best supporting work in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, but now he headlines James Gray’s fascinating space adventure “Ad Astra”. Both performances could (and should) give the 55-year-old Pitt plenty to look forward to come Oscar night.

“Ad Astra” (which is a Latin phrase meaning ‘to the stars’) is Gray’s followup to his brilliant yet under-appreciated “The Lost City of Z”. It’s a cerebral slice of science fiction in the vein of modern space-related think pieces like “Interstellar”, “Gravity” and “Arrival”. Interestingly, each of those three films ended up being my favorite movies from their respected years. So clearly I’m a sucker for these types of stories when they are done well.

Ad1

Set in the near future, Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a steely and intensely dedicated astronaut who lives by the mantra ‘The Mission Always Comes First‘. We learn early that his devotion to his work has earned him the respect of his peers but it has cost him his marriage (Liv Tyler portrays his wife in a handful of brief yet effective flashbacks). As a result Roy finds himself in a self-inflicted state of isolation and emotionally detachment.

Roy is the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a highly decorated astronaut famous for leading the first ever manned mission to the outskirts of our solar system. The expedition was called the Lima Project and Clifford’s objective was to answer the big question: Is there intelligent life outside of earth? But it has been sixteen years since the last communication with the Lima Project leading most to believe Clifford and his team are dead.

AD2

The film begins with a jaw-dropping introduction. Roy is working on a communication array high in our upper atmosphere when a massive pulse from deep space triggers a deadly electrical surge. On earth tens of thousands are killed and Space Command scrambles to find the source of the pulse. They trace it to Neptune, which happens to be the last known location of the Lima Project. Command calls in Roy informing him his father may be alive and causing the life-threatening surges. Roy agrees to a top secret mission to Mars where he will try to establish communications with his father. Externally its a matter of saving our solar system. Internally it’s a chance for Roy to reckon with the personal void left by his estranged father.

“Ad Astra” certainly isn’t the first movie to use space as an allegory for a variety of meditative themes. Here James Gray digs into the psyche of a fractured man wrestling with deeply compartmentalized emotions and space is the perfect setting for his expressions of emptiness and solitude. He’s a man full of mixed feelings. One minute he proudly states “I do what I do because of my dad.” But later, in one of his many internal monologues, we hear Roy lament the thought of becoming the very man who left him years ago. And as his ship ventures through the vast darkness of space, the troubling similarities between father and son shine bright.

AD3

There is a striking similarity between Roy’s mission and the hunt for Colonel Kurtz in Frances Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. Instead of snaking down a Vietnamese river in a patrol boat, Roy ventures through space in hopes of answering the film’s central mystery – What happened to his father? Is he alive? Did he go insane? Is he responsible for what is called “a crisis of unknown magnitude“? Of course with “Ad Astra” there is significantly more going on under the surface. The heart of Gray’s film is profoundly human. Its interests lie in exploring our most intimate human connections and showing what happens when those connections are broken. It’s a soulful meditation on the lasting effects of parental abandonment and the ache of loneliness can be felt in every frame.

Gray’s tightly focused, minimalist approach is sure to surprise (or disappoint) those looking for more traditional science fiction. He tells his story with an indie film intimacy but that doesn’t mean we aren’t given bursts of deep space tension and plenty of exquisite images. We’ve witnessed cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s brilliance in movies like “Dunkirk” and “Interstellar”. Here he dazzles through his audacious uses of light, color and physics. His penetrating close-ups are just as compelling, never losing sight of the human element.

AD4

Without question Pitt’s performance is the heart and soul of “Ad Astra”. It’s brilliantly understated; quiet and restrained with the perfect amount of pathos. Pitt imbues Roy with a delicate stoicism and it’s amazing how much he can say through his weary, melancholic eyes. And despite his character’s confident and controlled facade, Pitt’s haunting portrayal captures a fragility that’s essential to Roy’s journey.

In such a franchise-soaked landscape it’s no surprise “Ad Astra” didn’t blow up the box office (It debuted alongside a Downton Abby film and the fifth Rambo installment). Plus it’s a James Gray movie which means it doesn’t pander to common conventions or popular expectations. And that’s what I love about this film. It’s uniquely its own thing and Gray isn’t afraid to challenge us to think and feel. It’s a technical marvel that’s rich with evocative visuals. It’s a tender rumination on the immeasurable value of our closest human relationships. It’s an inspirational call to introspection, forgiveness, and individuality. And that just scratches the thematic surface of this magnificent and unforgettable sci-fi experience.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5star

49 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Ad Astra”

  1. I’ve had this on my radar for some time . Hoping to see it within the next week . These movies work for me if I’m emotionally attached like I was with Arrival but didn’t enjoy Interstellar or Gravity that much for that reason. So I’m hopeful this for me will be like Arrival , which is still one of the best sci-fi movies I have seen in a long time .

    • That’s interesting. I was really emotionally attached to Interstellar and even Gravity to a lesser degree. Ad Astra is a good compliment to those films while also taking things from Apocalypse Now and 2001. It’s such an interesting mixture. As you can tell I loved it.

  2. Wow, such polarizing notes for this movie in our blogopshere! I will wait for DVD because the last movie with Brad a lot of people called boring – Tree of Life – nearly put me into a coma in the cinema

    • It has definitely pulled in a variety of opinions. Obviously I loved it but I can see where it wouldn’t be for everyone. I gotta day though, it’s my first 5 star review of the year.

  3. Tom J. loved it as much as you. I, didn’t care for it as much as you two esteemed reviewers. I didn’t think the narrative sustained credibly for two hours. I thought after such a long build-up that the ending disappointing. The visuals, however, were fantastic. It reminded me of a futuristic journey like Apocolypse Now. Tommy Lee was the Kurz and the narration and the questions reminded me of Martin Sheen’s Captain.

    • That’s interesting. The ending is what really put this over the top for me. [SPOILERS…………………..] I thought the way Gray answered the ‘intelligent life’ question was audacious and affecting. Roy’s father forsook everything he had in search for more. But in this film there is no more. As Roy puts it “we’re all we have” so it’s our human relationships that we must nurture and hold dearest. So does Roy follow the path of his father or does he let him go and forge a new life for himself, one that’s more loving and fulfilling? Those things really resonated with me.

  4. Definitely in my top 3 of the year to this point. As far as the decade’s space movies go, I’d put it at the top as well. I find myself coming back to this one more than the Gravity, Martian, First Man, and Interstellar’s of the world.

    • Easy Top 3 for me too. Oh man, so much about this movie spoke to me. By the end I knew I had watched something special.

      As for these space-related movies go, I just have a real weak spot for them. This, Gravity, Interstellar, First Man, Arrival – I love them all. Strangely it’s The Martian that I liked but didn’t exactly love out of the bunch. I have it on Blu-ray and should really give it another look. I haven’t seen it since the theater.

  5. YES!!!! Great to see another fan of this one! (As Cindy noted above, I too went all in for this.)

    It’s a BOLD move to suggest what Gray does about our place in space. I truly felt quite taken aback by that, in a good way. I choked up a little when TLJ delivers that astonishingly cold line. Man, I love that guy. He does so little and ends up delivering a wallop in that reveal. So brutal.

    So many people are complaining about the voiceover narration. I don’t get it. I thought that it enhanced the spectacle rather than detracted from it. It gets us in his head when many of the situations shown can’t really do that. They show his physical endurance and a sense of time passing but it wouldn’t make much sense to have Roy talking aloud all the time, save for a little space madness (which we do of course get towards the end). And then if they went the route of the man communicating with the ship’s log, people would then dock it for ripping off The Martian or something. :\ I thought it gave a classical, almost Private Eye/noir feel to it.

    • Yes, Yes, and Yes! I thought the narration was very well done and worked perfectly to convey his inner conflict. Narration can be tricky but I felt Gray and Pitt really internalized it and made it feel like it was coming from deep within his soul. Loved it. Did you get to see it on IMAX?

      • Unfortunately not. Been taking advantage of our newly renovated local theater (where the ceilings are rather limited lol). So it was great watching it immediately and locally, and for relatively cheap ($13 😦 ). This was a killer experience for me. I was debating giving it a 5/5 myself. I’m actually not sure why I haven’t but as I’m not in the habit of retroactively adjusting ratings I’ll keep it at 4.5. A very high score all the same. Ad Astra really moved me.

      • I hoping to see an IMAX showing this weekend. Can’t wait. As for the rating, this has been my only 5 star score given so far this year. I don’t give many of them but I knew leaving the theater.

  6. I can see all your points and why you enjoyed it, but it was not for either my wife or I — at all. The list of negatives for us is long: too artsy, too introspective, long awkward background silence, too dry and didn’t even adhere (per the director himself) to science. I am happy you and others enjoyed it, however, movies to be enjoyed are subjective and we are excited whenever anybody enjoys a movie, even if it’s one we didn’t 🙂

    • Absolutely understand why this wouldn’t work for everyone. It’s very cerebral and leisurely paced. My wife generally doesn’t go for these types of films either so you’re not alone.

  7. Great review, Keith! I agree with everything, I loved it myself! The cinematography was stunning and the plot was much more interesting than I expected! Brad Pitt did a fantastic job, but if he gets nominated, he will probably get it for Once upon a time in Hollywood, not for this one (since Tarantino’s movie performed much better in cinema than this one)

    • Thanks so much. I really think Pitt has a chance to be nominated for both. It’s happened before. I think he is guaranteed a nom for “Hollywood” but this performance deserves one too.

      Great to hear from someone else who loved the film. Seeing it again this weekend.

  8. The pace was too slow for me and the narration was a bit basic in parts. Seemed a shame to have such a high profile actres in Liv Tyler and barely use her.

    Bur I doubt I will see a more beautifully shot film this year and maybe even next year. It was exquisite. It captures why people are so fascinated with space and stands on its own even with so many great ones out recently. I’d add the music too. Hasn’t been mentioned as much by people as I thought it would be I loved it. Best soundtrack for me since Dunkirk.

    • Oh bummer but I do understand your pacing issue. To be honest I love the pacing and felt it was the only way to really have a meditative approach to his journey. And I like Liv Tyler too, But I really didn’t need more of her here. For me that would’ve filled in to much of the backstory. Instead Gray was looking at her through Roy’s recollections and memories. I found that to be very effective.

  9. I think Pitt is probably a bit of an underrated actor, although I don’t quite know just where he stands in the acting hierarchy. I liked this one quite a bit, not all in as you are, but it would be in my top couple of the year. I liked that it is for the most part grounded in plausible science. I’ve checked on IMDB, judging by its rating I don’t think it’s playing really well with mass audiences. Maybe a little too deliberately paced.

    • Yes it’s not taking in big audiences but that’s pretty normal for James Gray films. But I really do love his movies.

      As for Pitt, I 100% agree that he is underrated. It’s funny, I’ve always felt that way. I think his talents as an actor have been often lost in his hunky sex symbol reputation.

      • That’s pretty much my sense of why he might be underrated. Of course, kind of hard to know just where an actor might be rated (imagine if IMDB had an actor rating, you could check on Brad Pitt and see a 7.6 and think he was getting shortchanged, that would be odd). Don’t know if you’ve seen 12 Monkeys, I think that was where I first saw him and thought he was pretty good.

      • Oh yes, I’ve seen it. What impressed me is the wide variety of roles he has done. One that falls under a lot of radars is his work in Kalifornia. The movie has some issues but Pitt gives a fascinating performance.

  10. Wow, 5 stars eh? I really liked this too, I need to start writing about it so I don’t bloody forget it! Pitt was excellent, I have loved a lot of his roles, but this one is right up there with 12 Monkeys for me, though obviously for very different reasons! It certainly is unique, though I liked a couple of nods to 2001, perhaps unintentional. But, especially as it is the header for my site most of the time, I saw HAL clearly in one of the first shots after the opening text, where there is red light slowly making its way across the screen and creating that contrast to light type look. Hard to explain, its probably 100% in my head haha! There is a lot of 2001 in this films blood though – NEVER a bad thing hehe.

    I actually liked it a ton more than Interstellar too, which I need to rewatch now that I think about it. As for Gravity, well, I’ll never understand that one. It just doesn’t seem to belong in the same sentence as this or Interstellar. Both of these were incredibly thoughtful and unique. The less I say about Gravity the better haha! I gave it three tries too!!

  11. Really liked this movie although I could have done without the moon pirates and monkey scenes. They felt out of place to me in this slow moving, psychological movie…

    • I actually liked the moon pirates mainly because it fit the movie’s depiction of how humanity has effected the moon. From consumerism to greed, its as if we brought our vices to the place we were trying to escape to. The apes…I loved the scene but it did feel a bit….weird.

      • I understand that, but that’s what the mall on the moon already showed. This felt to me that they just wanted an action scene in order to be able to sell it better than it actually adding a lot to the overall story….

      • Maybe so. To me it showed how humanity was already fighting among ourselves over resources, etc. Anxious to give that sequence another look.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s