Hard, grounded science-fiction is one of those sub-genres in film that can do no wrong for me. There’s something about the uniqueness of astronomic architecture, the simple whites and blacks contrasting against one another, and the vacuous, cryptic beauties of space that, when mixed in with a drop of pondering human contemplation, just makes for a highly relishable cinematic experience. Though not feeling totally cohesive, the slow, reflective, and utterly gorgeous core of James Gray’s Ad Astra hits the sci-fi spot in every way.
Brad Pitt meditatively monologues his way from Earth to Neptune as Major Roy McBride, an astronaut in the near future struggling to find value in his day-to-day life. When immensely powerful power surges start to threaten humanity’s existence across the stars, Roy is tasked by the Unites States Space Command to travel to Mars and try to communicate with the long-lost station responsible for the device causing the deadly disruptions. Though already numbingly set on the risky mission, Roy’s existential purpose is rekindled when he discovers the commander of the missing post is no one else than his absentee father (Tommy Lee Jones), who may still be alive after disappearing for twenty-six years.
Designed to capture “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie,” Ad Astra is an extravagant experiential delicacy—the film had me by the opening credits alone. In conjunction with Gray’s awe-inspiring vision, Hoyte van Hoytema’s simple, but lush cinematography richly brings out the beauty of the film’s sleek, grounded astronomic production design (and seamlessly integrated VFX) in jaw-dropping colors, camera movements, and an unsettling, yet nobly wonderous sense of scope.
It’s a real slow burn similar to Kubrick’s 2001 as Gray takes his time wringing out thrilling tension and emotion from each marvelous set piece, though as immersive as the film is, without serious concentration, it’s also equally as easy to get lost in the long-winded sequences of accompanying dialogue. That’s not really a complaint, though, as John Axelrad and Lee Haugen’s editing job is otherwise close to, if not outright flawless scene by scene, easily the best of the year and possibly beyond.
On that note, the story and narrative of Ad Astra are, unfortunately, not much to write home about and aren’t exactly focused or cohesive in what co-writers Gray and Ethan Gross want to tell. While the odyssey through space is an excellent journey of itself, the film’s running plot of a father-son story riddled with conspiracies doesn’t quite reflect its aims at the loftier thematic goals voiced by Pitt’s otherwise fantastic, restrained voice-over. Still, as Ad Astra wraps, it’s capped with a moving, philosophically poetic conclusion—courtesy of Pitt, again—that puts the rest of the film in a new thematic perspective worthy of the expedition taken towards it.
Fresh to the stars, and beyond