Through hardships, to the stars – Ad Astra (Film Review)

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In the near future, a series of high-intensity power surges ripple across the Solar System. Earth is hit by multiple surges, and it’s clear that humanity is at risk of being wiped out.

United States Space Command enlist astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) on a top-secret mission to discover the remains of the “Lima Project”, an exploration craft sent to the edge of space to seek new intelligent life that vanished sixteen years ago.

As “Lima Project” is identified as the source of the power surges, and also that Roy’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was the astronaut in command at the time of its disappearance, Roy faces his most dangerous – and life-changing- mission yet where the fate of the entire Solar System rests in his hands…

With a title that literally translates as “to the stars” in Latin, you know what director James Gray is out to achieve – a touching and tension fueled journey into the galactic heavens. What we get, thanks to some stand-out performances, dreamy cinematography and absorbing music is one of the most emotional and realistic science-fiction films in recent years.

Brad Pitt in "Ad Astra"

Brad Pitt soars (quite literally) in the leading role of Major Roy McBride. He’s an astronaut who keeps calm under pressure, excels in all forms of training and flight and is as introverted as he is gentle and charming to all he meets. Pitt leads the film from the start with inner narration, and this is a journey we take with him. Thanks to his unquestionable talent as an actor, more effective when he is given grounded, emotional roles, you can’t fail to be invested in him and always question his motives – why is he doing this? What does he want? Who IS he?

Supported by a stellar cast including Tommy Lee Jones (teased until the final act), Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler – who pops up so infrequently and randomly you’ll forget she is even a part in this – Pitt and Gray have the talent on camera and off to make this a fascinating motion picture.

Throughout the entire two-hour run time, you’ll be seeing subtle nods to sci-fi classics such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and even Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. They come from the use of diegetic noise, a bold colour palette, atmospheric music and encapsulating camera shots that paint a grander picture of the void of space than film generally allows. Gray attempts to give us science fact over science fiction; North America colonising sectors of the Moon and Mars. Virgin doing commercial flights into space. Voyages to the edge of the Solar System to seek new life. Nothing seems far-fetched or out-of-place and you really do feel yourself thinking… what if this happened to us, or me? What would I feel? How would I progress?

Sadly, this mix of art-house cinema and exciting space exploration has succumbed to a stronger negative word of mouth than positive, making this a box-office bomb. Does it deserve it? No. Is it expected? A little. The blend of both doesn’t work for the casual filmgoer. This is science fiction rooted in a reality, rather than fiction. Does this mean general audiences need more escapism, CGI and laser swords in their sci-fi rather than thoughtful questions and humanity?

Action in "Ad Astra"
A stand-out Moon Buggy sequence in “Ad Astra”

Everything about Ad Astra is rooted in humanity. From the choices we make to the risks we take and the sacrifices we offer to assert ourselves. It’s highly thought-provoking and full of just the right amount of tension and action to have you hooked. When all is quiet and the camera lingers on ships, faces or empty corridors, your heart races as you wait for what may come bursting onto the screen, be it a burst of solar energy, a meteor…. or a psychotic monkey.

This isn’t an action film – the action is minimal – but what action we do see is full of risk and danger. It’s as real as it could be, and some sequences on the Moon and in the space shuttle are shot brilliantly to show the scale of what we are dealing with, especially the moon buggy chase.

This is a drama. It’s powerful with the messages fronted and kudos to Pitt and Jones for their scenes later in the film. It resonates more than just the son seeking a father. It goes into human thoughts and dreams and hopes and fears wrapped up in just a few powerful moments of dialogue that are hit home by the performances on-screen. Just as you think you know where the story is going, something comes along to just knock you off tangent.

Ad Astra deserves to be seen on the big screen to immerse yourself in the majesty and danger of space, and to take a fictional journey across the stars in a story that you really feel could one day soon be fact. The performances are spot-on, the voyage is pure sci-fi and the crew combine their talent to bring something immersive that will linger on in the minds of those who see it.

Dir: James Gray

Scr: James Gray and Ethan Gross

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler

Prd: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira and Arnon Milchan

DOP: Hoyte van Hoytema

Music: Max Richter

Country: United States

Year: 2019

Run time: 123 minutes

Ad Astra is in cinemas now

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