Some films aren’t so much narrative-driven epics as they are hypnotic slow-burning questions about humanity. In films like this, there may well be a story, but it takes a back seat. The real experience is within the viewer’s mind, how it interacts with what the film is asking and depicting. Space is so often a feature that is involved in films like this. There’s something about wandering the infinite expanse that inspires the largest of thoughts. It makes sense when you think about it, after all, whenever someone’s out there it’s to continue humanities never-ending quest for answers.
James Gray’s Ad Astra tells a story of this quest, and of a man looking for his father. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) lost his father to space 30 years before we meet him. His father (Tommy Lee Jones) was chosen to and accepted the role of head of the lemur project. A mission designed to seek extraterrestrial life forms on the outer edges of the solar system. Roy believed his father was dead, but when incidents begin occurring that link back to the lemur project, he is selected to venture forth into the unknown to seek his father.
It is important that when you see this film, you have adjusted expectations. It is not so much a thrilling adventure of a son saving his father. Ad Astra is the inner struggle of a man fighting to understand why he is the way he is. Roy battles with his feelings throughout the film, and it is that battle we are made subject to more than anything else; it’s entirely brilliant. However, it isn’t exactly what the trailers promised, so beware. Instead of a hero saves the day thriller, Ad Astra is exactly what I described in the intro, a slow burner that will ask more of you than you will ask of it.
The experience rests solely on the more than reliable shoulders of Brad Pitt, who delivers a total knockout performance. Roy rarely feels any genuine emotion; he faces death and loss at every turn yet remains vacant. It’s impossible not to empathise with Roy, and that is why it is such an exceptional performance. Pitt embodies this stoicism with a vigorous concentration, never letting slip that Roy is even capable of feeling until it’s the right time. He is a genuine chance to do something that hasn’t happened for an actor since 2007 and be nominated twice on the same night at the academy awards. He’s had an exceptional 2019 and reminded us all that he isn’t just a prolific producer he’s also one of Hollywood’s best performers.
Visually Ad Astra is the year’s best film. Every single shot is awe-inspiring from beginning to end. Visiting Mars is particularly stunning and was reminiscent of how gorgeous Blade Runner 2049 was. The cinematography, production design and visual effects teams have all outdone themselves. What they have managed to create is nothing short of masterful and without them, this film would be a tragic failure. Needless to say, this film has enough visual triumphs to make a sizable impact on awards season.
Gray is a born filmmaker; he’s already proven that. With Ad Astra, he expands upon his already terrific filmography with one of his best films yet. Time was his true undertaking in this picture. The way time passes, and how we so often don’t make the most of it, that’s the life Roy has led, and that is a massive part of what Gray is trying to talk about in his work. Throughout it seems everything always comes back to this concept and it resonates more than any other film he has made to this point. Ad Astra will speak to anyone who takes the time to listen and listen clearly. If you manage to do that this movie won’t leave your mind for days to come, and that’s what makes it not only a wonderful script but also terrific direction.
The ending will divide opinion, and that’s okay. What won’t divide opinion is the ambition of Ad Astra as a whole, particularly when it comes to narrative. Gray and Pitt started a film with lofty goals in mind and have risen to every one of them. When it does come time for the end, even if you don’t like it, I think you will struggle to say that you didn’t just sit through something incredibly beautiful. Therein lies its biggest achievement of all, no matter what this film will have an impact. The only difference lies in how significant that impact is.
Ad Astra reaches for the stars and never lets go, taking us on a deep and wondrous journey reminding us never to lose sight of what’s right in front of us. Pitt and Gray make for a brilliant cinematic pairing and together they have forged another great modern foray into sci-fi.
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