Review: Ad Astra

by Andrew Parker

An intense and intelligent psychological thriller, family drama, and sci-fi epic all rolled into one, writer-director James Gray’s Ad Astra is one of the most original and moving big budget pictures of the year. While Gray has been a critical darling for years now after making films like The Immigrant, Two Lovers, The Lost City of Z, and We Own the Night, Ad Astra allows the director his biggest chance at commercial success (no matter how slight that may seem) without compromising the big ideas and complex emotions that have made his previous efforts so entrancing and underrated. While high concept genre fare might seem like an odd step in Gray’s career, Ad Astra slots perfectly into his filmography and marks one of his grandest achievements to date.

Sometime in the future, after colonizing has begun on the moon and Mars, accomplished astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) finds himself called upon to carry out an important, top secret mission. Immense power surges have been crippling infrastructure across the galaxy, killing many and throwing society into chaos. The top brass at Space Command believe that these surges are being caused by the releasing of anti-matter into the atmosphere around Neptune, and the person behind it could be Roy’s long thought lost or deceased father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). Twenty-nine years prior, Clifford was selected to head up The Lima Project, the first ever manned research expedition to the edges of our solar system. Years into the mission, communications went silent, and there was evidence to suggest that the mission had either failed or Clifford went rogue. Thanks to his preternaturally unflappable demeanour, previous experience, and connection to the suspected culprit, Roy is selected to carry out the difficult task of stopping the power surges before they wipe out all life in the universe, by travelling to a base on Mars where he can transmit a message to the once thought lost spacecraft. Quickly, Roy realizes that he’s not being told the full truth by those around him, and his father might be caught up in something more dangerous and complicated than originally imagined.

Gray has always been adept at balancing quiet austerity with mounting tension, but Ad Astra is his best mastery over his craft to date. Alongside co-writer and frequent collaborator Ethan Gross, Gray makes Ad Astra into a wildly entertaining sci-fi thriller, a thoughtfully complex character study, a subtext packed parable, an unlikely detective movie, and a visually accomplished work of art at the same time. It’s hard to make any one of those kinds of films convincingly, but somehow Gray has managed to pull of the sort of delicate genre balancing act that only a handful of modern era filmmakers before him (most notably Kubrick, Denis, and Nolan) have been able to nail. Ad Astra is both high quality, auteur driven filmmaking and an unlikely crowd pleaser. It has the plot of a B-movie and the temerity found in the smartest and most artful of films. It’s the type of movie that anyone familiar with Gray’s career will be happy to see, and also something none of his critical fans would’ve expected.

While Ad Astra comes chockablock with all sorts of classical sounding sci-fi jargon about interstellar travel that may or may not be entirely accurate, plausible, or true, Gray enshrouds some of the film’s more escapist leanings in clever, insightful ways. The futuristic setting isn’t too far removed from current realities, despite some clear technological advances. There’s a familiarity to some of the trappings in Ad Astra that have been elevated by intriguing curveballs that play with audience expectations of sci-fi conventions, all of them delivered with a straight face and artistic conviction. 

Instead of being beholden to any single government, Space Command is sort of an overseeing bureau that can do whatever it wants. The moon isn’t depicted as a budding, futuristic metropolis, but rather an industrial and mining war zone where competing interests are locked in perpetual battle. The spaceships don’t look out of the ordinary, but we don’t need any long winded explanations as to why they’re able to travel further and faster than before. Such details aren’t needed because the focus is placed squarely on the characters and the moral, ethical, and emotional problems they’re facing. This is the world of the characters. We’re just visiting it, and there are no winks and nods to the artifice of Gray’s production.

Ad Astra is the definition of great sci-fi in the great tradition of Roddenberry and Bradbury: an adventure story with a lot to say about society and personal relationships in the here and now. In recent years, sci-fi has been more about world building and dazzling audiences, and while Ad Astra certainly fits that bill, it’s focusing on a storytelling craft that seems to have been long since forgotten in favour of overstuffed plotting and cramming in as much potential intellectual property as possible. It seems like a silly thing to celebrate, but it’s comforting to see a large scale motion picture that’s actually about something these days.

Between some impressive set pieces unlike anything Gray has attempted in the past – including an eerie, but intense chase scene on the lunar surface and a zero-gravity knife fight – are plenty of quiet moments that increase in drama as the story unfolds and the relationships between the characters come into sharper focus. In addition to being one of the best additions to a growing canon of films about saving the fate of the entire universe, Ad Astra is also an unlikely drama and mystery about strained familial relations. It’s a note perfect marriage of the universal and the personal, with the latter frequently overtaking the former in terms of precedence and in importance. 

In some ways, Gray seems like he’s tipping his hat to the recent works of Terrence Malick and the father/son/spiritual relationships that are most prevalent in the fellow auteur’s recent playbook. Ad Astra does have some philosophically minded narration like a Malick film, but rather than poetic ramblings, Gray and Gross’ voiceover sounds more like a gumshoe searching for lost truths and personal validations that have escaped him for years. It’s a good fit for the material, and it allows Pitt, who gives one of his best performances, a chance to dig deeper into the character’s emotional roots.

Outside of looking spectacular (thanks to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s typically strong work and some impressively detailed costuming and production design) and Gray’s expert storytelling chops, Ad Astra stuns because Pitt understands exactly how this incrementally building material should be played. At first, Roy has to always appear like a cool customer. His job depends on keeping calm and carrying on, but there are always signs of repression bubbling beneath the surface. He both has abandonment issues and has previously abandoned someone (in the form of his ex-wife, played by Liv Tyler in brief flashbacks). He wants to know what happened to his father, but their life together wasn’t always ideal. Roy even questions if he even wants to find his father alive, especially after he’s been perpetually used, lied to, and told some withheld information by Space Command’s director of operations on Mars (played by Ruth Negga in a small, but powerful performance). Pitt never plays Roy like he’s a robot in human form, constantly rubbing his face and exhibiting some subtle anxious tics that constantly dupe the artificial intelligence tasked with gauging his psychological stability into thinking he’s doing fine. Even during maddeningly long trips, Roy does his best to keep his emotions in check, and while the entirety of Ad Astra is building to an inevitable emotional blow-up, Pitt is always doing everything he can to make sure that moment will land with maximum force. It’s precisely the sort of brilliant performance that elevates an already great film to another level. It’s one of the best examples of why Pitt is one of the most celebrated stars of his generation.

Ad Astra has a lot on its mind, but primarily it functions best as a look at how people fear becoming their parents and the lengths humans will go to prove that life has meaning beyond our narrow existences and experiences. It’s never too pretentious as to be inscrutable, never too precious to be overtly cute, and it always values the intelligence of the person watching it (except for a couple of throwaway moments of levity that are either unintentional or too deadpan for the film’s own good). It’s popcorn filmmaking as a four course meal, and hopefully Gray gets a chance to make something else on this scale again. If he doesn’t, it’s still another exemplary entry into an already stellar filmography.

Ad Astra opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, September 20, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Ad Astra:

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