The infinite, never-ending darkness of space so often provides the perfect cinematic canvas for intimate self-reflection. It’s an odd dichotomy, but over the past decade sci-fi films like Gravity, Interstellar and High Life have used the vast array of space as a backdrop to characters craving human connection. In Ad Astra’s case, we’re greeted with exactly that. It may cover the wide reaches of the solar system—going from the Moon to Mars to Neptune—but it’s really a story about a man yearning to reconnect with his father who abandoned him long ago, and his famously unbreakable emotional walls start to slowly crumble away because of the possibility of that reunion.
Set in the near future, Ad Astra follows astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a man famous for his calm demeanour—his heartbeat having never gone over 80 beats per minute. He loves the outer reaches of space because it isolates him from the rest of the world. Opening his emotional walls up to people—especially his wife Eve (Liv Tyler)—is actually his biggest fear. When an electromagnetic surge emanates from the outer reaches of space, havoc is wreaked on Earth causing tens of thousands of deaths. The source is believed to be a result of Roy’s father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a long-lost astronaut who led a project seeking to find extra-terrestrial life. Now, it’s Roy’s job to find him.
If you look at the plot from a surface level, it sets the stakes for something loaded with Gravity-like energy and Interstellar-like scope. While it has momentary bursts of action, it’s far more of a contemplative exploration into a man whose emotions fall behind a strong façade. It’s definitely in line with the work of writer-director James Gray’s last film The Lost City of Z. That was a story about persistence and desperation, and Ad Astra in many ways echoes those same thematic driving forces. Even when in the most dangerous situations, Roy is a figure of calmness and stamina. He’s someone who seemingly knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s not desperate when his life is in danger, but he is desperate when he realises the chance of a real human reconnection with his father—something that he’s been starved of—is an actual possibility.
Nowhere is the façade of Roy more evident than the simultaneously beautiful and terrifying opening set piece. Roy is falling from a giant space antenna, but seems to be in a completely Zen state. On a technical level, James Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her, Dunkirk) deliver astounding visuals right away. There’s a beautiful sense of scale to the outer space photography, yet when Roy is falling to Earth, we’re locked in on Roy’s face—his façade. We see the chaos of him tumbling to Earth, and the calmness seeping through his body. It immediately sets up his character as a complete professional. Hoyte van Hoytema’s work throughout is visually entrancing but also feels necessarily claustrophobic and harsh when the story needs it to be. He’s easily one of the best cinematographers working today.
Last year in Damien Chazelle’s superb First Man, we saw Neil Armstrong depicted as a man haunted by death, and someone who despite his immense inner pain used that as the source of his strength. He kept a quiet outer resolve and used the outer reaches of space and his job to hide from those closest to him. Roy’s demeanour closely echoes Armstrong’s.
This talk on the rumination of self and the emotional repression one goes through doesn’t sound like something that would take centre stage in a film where it’s trailers leaned heavily on Moon buggy chases and Brad Pitt falling through space accompanied by a bombastic score. Thankfully, knowing this is a work of James Gray, I knew this wouldn’t be a big-budget sci-fi film driven by action spectacle first and foremost. It’s important to go into Ad Astra with the mindset of seeing a drama. In fact, the bursts of action are the parts of the film which feel most out of place—almost like separate vignettes providing momentary breaks from the lead character-driven thrust.
When Roy arrives on the Moon, we see that it’s a fully functioning system. There’s an Applebee’s, a Subway, and not to mention Roy’s arrival on the Moon via Virgin Atlantic! It’s played all with a completely straight face, and I love that. We’re then subject to a Mad Max: Fury Road-like car chase on the Moon with pirates hunting for resources. It sounds crazy—and it is. There’s no further explanation regarding said pirates, but it’s more of a symbolic element displaying how advanced the Moon has become in terms of a colonisation hub. One other scene stands out in comparison to the more meditative proceedings of the film’s narrative and to spoil it would be a disservice to how crazily off-kilter it is.
As evidenced by The Lost City of Z, Gray is clearly inspired heavily by ‘70s cinema. That film could’ve been an adventure drama plucked out of the era, which heavily echoes Apocalypse Now by way of Solaris, obviously with more action beats than the latter. In what I’m certain will be the film’s most contentious element, Gray and Ethan Gross’s screenplay contains frequent voiceover from Roy, which help detail and vocally flesh out his inner thoughts. It’s a tool which is used one too many times. Often, it’s necessary to understand what Roy’s thinking in the moment, but occasionally it feels like he’s describing things which are being visually communicated just as well.
In a film, so expansive in visual scope, it’s a refreshingly quiet film. I love loud and bombastic Hans Zimmer scores, but The Leftovers’ composer Max Richter and Lorne Balfe deliver a score which feels as reserved and heavenly as the film needs it to be, complementing the inward struggle of Roy as a character.
Despite the two noticeable action beats, it’s a film which revels in its subtleties, and Brad Pitt understands this perfectly. His work is something that needs full attention to be appreciated to its greatest degree. It’s not a showy performance, but it’s one laced with internal struggle and sadness. So much emotion is communicated with the smallest ticks from his face and eyes. Pitt understands this story is about the veneer of a man dissolving ever so gradually. Along with his fantastic work in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s definitely having a brilliant 2019. Every supporting character doesn’t get a whole lot to do, and in the context of this particular story, that makes sense. While there’s good work from Ruth Negga and Tommy Lee Jones, this is Pitt’s showcase.
The fact 20th Century Fox allowed a director like James Gray to make an $80 million meditative sci-fi epic about emotional repression and familial connection is absolutely brilliant, and when an ambitious piece of original sci-fi comes along like this, we should appreciate it. While there may be buggy chases on the Moon and interstellar planet hopping, Ad Astra is a story about something far more grounded and is a deconstruction of the male hero in the process. He’s spent his life running from the people he loves and maintaining a strong outer image, but sometimes you just have to confront the scariest thing of all. Not space, but your own hidden emotional trauma. Melancholic it is.
Ad Astra is in cinemas now