Ad Astra follows astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) as he agrees to a mission across the solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father, Clifford McBride, and his doomed expedition that 30 years later threatens human beings. The film is written and directed by James Gray and stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, and Donald Sutherland.
First and foremost, Ad Astra is what science fiction should be; an exploration of the human condition shown through the backdrop of the vastness and emptiness of space. Like science fiction that came before it (i.e., Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey) it succeeds in its poignant themes and incredible attention to character-driven drama. It’s not interested in being a sprawling space adventure like so many sci-fi films today. Director James Gray knows exactly the story he wants to tell and does it with such care and finesse. The film is a triumph.
In other words, Ad Astra is a beautifully crafted film with rich themes and tremendous performances from Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. I’ll be surprised if it isn’t in the Academy conversation.
Science fiction is often about examining the human condition and searching for life’s’ meaning with the backdrop of space as our setting for exploring these various themes. Ad Astra is no different in its storytelling as it is laser-focused on precisely what it wants to say. The film finds McBride, earths last hope, searching for the man who created him to find out he left him behind and to potentially destroy him. If you don’t see the religious symbolism in that, watch the film. And it’ll be clear as day that this isn’t another standard sci-fi adventure about someone with “daddy issues.”
Pitt plays McBride with emotional complexity and evolves on-screen with very little dialogue and only his (voice-over) thoughts to guide us. Without spoiling too much of the journey of his character. The audience sees him go from robotic-solider, who takes orders with ease to someone with deeply repressed emotions about his father leaving him. All the audience has to go off of is Pitt’s facial expressions to convey his inner emotional turmoil. Moreover, Tommy Lee Jones is haunting and nuanced in his portrayal as McBride’s father. It’s an incredibly different role for Jones and given the limited screen time he embraces all the rich material.
In addition to some of the best performances of the year, Ad Astra boasts some beautiful imagery and cinematography. It’s in these shots of space, more specifically, when McBride travels to the Moon and eventually Mars where the shots bring you into this vast world writer-director Gray has created. As I mentioned before, science fiction tells the story of what it means to be human. Using the backdrop of space, the loneliness and emptiness that is present within McBride’s character are captured visually in these shots. In these sequences of McBride traveling through space to reach his father and find a connection he’s desperately longed for but compartmentalized away is breathtaking. Gray also gives me something I never thought I’d want in a science fiction film, moon pirates.
Although Ad Astra is one of the best films of the year, it isn’t without its flaws. They’re specific sequences of the film, particularly where McBride is attempting to reach the moon rocket station that just don’t fit. For example, McBride and co. must cross “no man’s land” of the Moon to get to and be wary of literal space pirates. Don’t get me wrong the space chase scene between his convoy and pirates was fun, but it doesn’t serve any real purpose to the story nor make a whole lot of sense. Why wouldn’t his convoy be better prepared for, as the film refers to it “dangerous areas,” of the Moon? Something tells me it was Gray’s way of building the world that encapsulates this film, though as a whole its unnecessary to McBride’s story. Moreover, there’s another sequence where space monkeys are involved, and it’s super creepy and creates a lot of tension. However, upon rewatch, it doesn’t hold up the same and draws out the film’s runtime.
Ad Astra is what it needs to be: a science fiction film that tells a story of the human condition. And asks the question of how far we’re willing to go to find the answers we seek. Gray’s film captures our ability to evolve and embrace empathy as well as our ability to self-destruct. It is as close to a perfect science fiction film we’re going to see this year.
Ad Astra features stellar performances by Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones and is bolstered by writer-director James Gray command behind the camera culminating in one of the most satisfying, if not, best films of the year.
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