Director: James Gray
Screenplay: James Gray and Ethan Gross
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler
BBFC Certification: 12
There’s been quite the renaissance of “big concept” sci-fi cinema throughout the 2010’s, from Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 thriller, Gravity, through Christopher Nolan’s 2014 masterpiece Interstellar and films such as Ridley Scott’s The Martian in 2015, as well as a smattering of lower budgeted indie fare like High Life and Prospect from 2018. These films represent an attempt to move away from the flashy, modern blockbuster esque sci-fi and more back to territory explored in films such as Soliaris, 2001 and Silent Running; a more clinical and introspective look at man’s journey “ad astra” – to the stars.
2019’s Ad Astra is the latest edition to this catalogue. Set in a near future where humans have colonised the solar system as far out as Mars, it follows the story of astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) who’s absentee father, Clifford (Jones), led the “Lima Project” mission to Neptune many years before the tale begins, in an attempt to make contact with alien life. When electromagnetic waves begin to devastate the human colonies they are tracked back to the Lima Project in orbit around Neptune, a mission once thought failed with all involved deceased, and the revelation that Clifford McBride may still be alive. As Roy journey’s to the farthest planet on a mission to find out what’s become of his father, he discovers truths about himself, his family and the reality of human life in space.
Ad Astra is a complex film. Out of the gate it’s going to get comparisons to Interstellar, however as the story progresses you’ll come to realise that, at its heart, this is a very different film. There is a palpable feeling of angst flowing through it – the viewpoint is laser focussed on Roy with him central to every scene, and it’s through him that we see this future – worlds that seem very dissimilar to our own, full of conflict, war and consumerism, but it is also through him that we understand his character. Roy is a man in the same mould as his father, distant, seemingly uncaring of his wife (Tyler) and focussed on his work aboard the mile high “space antenna”. When the first power surge hits as he’s scaling this behemoth and sends him plummeting to earth, nearly killing him, he begins an introspective journey to explore himself and, as the truth comes out, his relationship with his father. This narrative is the backbone of the film and it connects us to the characters of Roy and Clifford, however that focus comes at a cost.
At just over 2 hours, it’s not an epic film, however there is so much packed into those minutes that it’s hard to come away without feeling a sense of, not confusion, but reflective questioning. A lot of that comes from the uneven tone; Ad Astra is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it. Scattered in among the high concept sci fi are moments of action, such as a moon buggy chase in low gravity or an excursion into a stranded science vessel that borders on horror as Roy gradually realises just why the vessel is abandoned. These moments add flavour to the world but they feel purely like set pieces added in for excitement value, vignettes and distractions from the core plot. In that respect Ad Astra feels like it owes quite the debt to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Indeed, when you consider Cliford as the Kurtz figure to Roy’s Willard, the comparison becomes a no-brainer, but where Coppola used the diversions in the main narrative to explore the horrors of war, the distractions in Ad Astra can feel like just that – distractions and padding.
And yet those more action focussed distractions can also make the slower moments jar even further. Add to that the slightly irritating voiceover from Roy that cuts through many of the quieter scenes; again this draws a more immediate comparison to Apocalypse Now and Roy’s thoughts on the society that mankind has created certainly underpins the bleak feeling of despair that is ever present in the film, but it doesn’t necessarily add to it. Much of what we discover through this is apparent on screen and it feels like a better approach would have been the old cinematic chestnut of “show and don’t tell”.
Brush aside the unevenness and annoyances, however, and Ad Astra is a phenomenal achievement. The audio and visual design of the film, the lighting, the cinematography, all comes together to show a crew at the top of their game. The stark set design evokes Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the adherence to be as realistic as possible with space travel and physics almost gives the film a hyper-real feeling at times, despite it being pure science fiction. Add to that the stark score and this bleak vision of the future is complete – it’s certainly not one I’d want to live in!
Also at the top of their game are the actors in the film, from Brad Pitt’s committed performance to a wonderful turn from Tommy Lee Jones as the cruel Clifford McBride. This is very much a story of one man’s existential angst and Pitt and Jones knock is out of the park as the father and the son who very much lives in the shadow of his legacy. The other stars get small but significant parts with Ruth Negga shining in particular as a Mars base commander who has more attachment to the Lima Project than it originally seems, while Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland give great supporting performances.
I would argue that Ad Astra is essential viewing for fans of sci-fi cinema, however viewers will very much find it cinematic marmite. Some may love it, some may hate it and some may kinda like it in certain circumstances. It is, however, an astonishing accomplishment of filmmaking, bringing concepts and design ideas to a mainstream film that have been missing for quite some time. And for all that it cribs from other movies, it also finds its own feet and allows its story and visuals to feel unique.
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Audio Commentary by James Gray
- “The Void”
- To the Stars
- A Man Named Roy
- The Crew of the Cepheus
- The Art of Ad Astra
- Reach for the Stars
- Audio Commentary by Director James Gray
- Space Age: The VFX (digital only)
The Blu-Ray of Ad Astra comes with a handful of special features which focus very much on the key aspects of the film, the character of Roy and the fabulous production design.