Synopsis: In the near future, emotionally closed-off astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), journeys into the furthest reaches of known space in search of a lost mission tasked with finding extraterrestrial life. The catch? Said mission is commanded by his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who might have gone rogue and now threatens the fate of the entire solar system.
1. I love moody, contemplative space epics. So much so that my favourite movie of all time is THE moody, contemplative space epic to end all moody, contemplative space epics. There is no denying, however, that it is a tough genre to pull off. The ideal film in this genre must balance the expansive and the minute, beholding the vastness of the cosmos while grappling with mankind’s place in it. The possible list of missteps is endless. Luminaries such as Brian De Palma (Mission To Mars), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar*), and Steven Soderbergh (the remake of Solaris) have notably stumbled in their attempts to apply their own spin to the genre. With Ad Astra, director James Gray has succeeded where they have failed, creating a stunning and wholly original vision of the future that manages to be both grandiose and intimate. It is a brilliant work of science fiction, one of the best films of the year, and irrefutable proof that it is possible to still make movies for adults that can excite the mind as well as the heart.
2. Chief among Ad Astra‘s pleasures is its glorious imagery and colour palette. The space epic is the genre for bold, inventive cinematography and art direction, and in this aspect, Ad Astra is nothing short of spectacular. Gray, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Christopher Nolan’s DP of choice), and the entire art direction team create so many indelible images that it is impossible to highlight all of them. The use of light and colour stands out in particular, with each setting adopting a different colour palette – the moon, overrun by corporate consumerism, is bleak and grey. Mars, the last outpost of mankind, is bathed in fiery red and orange. Neptune, the furthest reaches of space, is inky black and blue, as befitting its oceanic moniker. Ad Astra also achieves what was so famously perfected in Alien, in that its spacecraft and man-made environments feel realistically lived in, from the plasticky sheen of the commercial spaceflight to the peeling suicide hotline sign on the corner of the Mars outpost. If there is one (and trust me, there is way more than one) shot that stuck with me, it is a POV shot of Roy McBride, submerged in orange-tinted water, pulling himself further into its muddy depths, an image that is horrifying as it is beautiful.
3a. Ad Astra is also a film that feels much longer than its 2 hour runtime (but in a good way!) There is a weightiness and gravity (pun!) to this film, and part of the reason is due to how Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross manage to pack in plenty of plot into its relatively slim runtime**. The film is reminiscent of a Greek epic, where the hero encounters numerous obstacles that he has to solve through his bravery and ingenuity. It is also, very obviously, indebted to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart Of Darkness, with its dual hero’s journey into the outer reaches of civilisation and the inner workings of man to rescue (or kill) a fallen hero. The film has a fiendishly clever screenplay that constantly pits its protagonists wants (solitude, to find his father) and his needs (human connection, to let go of his father) in conflict with each other, in the service of some very ambitious existential musings about parenthood, dreams, and man’s place in the universe. If I have one minor complaint, it is that the film can be a little too on the nose with its dialogue, especially towards the end, when a couple of lines feel like Gray and Gross are really underlining the key themes of the movie in a way that even the densest audience member can understand.
3b. There has been talk that Gray’s vision was compromised by the studio, who included reshoots conducted by the second-unit director in order to create some action beats in the film. Certain critics have also noted that said action scenes do not cohere with the film’s overall sense of arty introspection. The people who say this are idiots and should not be taken seriously. For one, such talk is endemic of a certain type of snobbery that claims that ‘action’ and ‘philosophy’ cannot go together, which is complete nonsense***. Furthermore, I don’t know what movie these people were watching, but the film I watched married its action scenes to its overall intent beautifully. These are not intended to be rah-rah Star Wars style space battles, but instead are a sombre and brutal evocation of the price of progress and mankind’s innate capacity for violence. Furthermore, the action scenes are constructed beautifully, and I especially love how the people in each scene move in a realistically awkward manner, thanks to the zero-g environment and bulky spacesuits. I end this aside on one final note. Shouldn’t it be exceedingly obvious why a moody, contemplative space epic would include a scene where a man fights a primate and defeats it due to his ability to use tools?
4. In the centre of it all is Brad Pitt, giving one of the finest performances of his excellent career. I spoke in my Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood review about Tarantino using Pitt’s persona of the cool, laconic badass, and James Gray goes one step further to illustrate the psychological toll it would take for anyone to constantly perform that particular role. On the surface, Roy McBride is the model explorer hero, but the weariness in Pitt’s eyes hint at much deeper and darker emotions beneath. The film is well aware of the inherent irony of its protagonist – the best of humanity can only become that way by burying anything about him that is human. Roy McBride mentions at one point that he ‘compartmentalises’ his emotions, and the entirety of the film shows the human cost of such an endeavour as the walls he has built begin to crumble. One final bit of praise – the movie begins and ends with Roy doing a psychological evaluation, giving very similar answers in a very similar tone of voice. Yet with only the subtlest of changes in voice and facial expression, Pitt manages to convey the enormity of the journey he has taken and the growth he has undergone from it. If there was any justice, Pitt would get some awards recognition, but I fear that this performance, with its subtlety and interiority, might go over the heads of the people who vote for these things.
5. I touched on this earlier, but Ad Astra is truly a rarity in these times – a film for adults that manages to be both introspective and entertaining. Constructed**** and shot with the utmost craftsmanship, Ad Astra deals with weighty, philosophical themes with grace and intelligence. It presents a sublime vision of space, one that inspires an equal measure of both awe and dread. It is a film that dares to ask the question, “what if there is nothing out there?” and perhaps even more courageously, dares to answer it by saying “then at least there is us. We are still here.”
Ad Astra is almost a masterpiece, and certainly one of the best films of the year. Go and watch it now.
*An interesting and glorious misstep that is frankly a lot more interesting than his ‘successful’ films, but certainly still a misstep.
**Aided by the razor sharp editing – this is one of the best edited pictures of the year due to how each moment and shot lasts precisely how long it needs to last, and no longer.
***My upcoming top films of the decade list will have an entry that completely rubbishes the idea that great art and great entertainment cannot co-exist. Those who know me probably already know which movie it is.
****Again, this thing is SO well edited.