I came into Ad Astra blind, not having watched even a second of a trailer and only seeing one poster for the film. Knowing Brad Pitt was in the film came with its own weight of expectations. And despite walking into the cinema with zero preconceived notions, I walked away still unsure of the whole experience.
Directed/co-written by James Gray, Ad Astra is a big genre departure from the veteran filmmaker’s usual fare of gritty crime thrillers/dramas like The Yards and We Own the Night. Set in the near future, the film sees Pitt play astronaut Major Roy McBride, son of pioneering space legend Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). It’s a time of mass distress as all life on Earth is being threatened by mysterious power surges coming from deep in the solar system. The surges are eventually traced back to the “Lima Project” base – a lost deep space mission that set off 26 years ago in the search for extraterrestrial life. It’s also is where Clifford McBride is now believed to somehow still be alive.
Roy is asked to travel to Mars so that he can send a message to his father telling him that the surges – whatever they are – are harming Earth’s inhabitants. On his journey to complete this task, he finds himself on a dangerous and introspective adventure.
A film with a lot to say but no idea how
Ad Astra is a film that at times struggles with its identity. From action-packed rover chases to quiet, introspective scenes, the pacing of the film leaves you wondering what kind of film you’re watching and what you’re supposed to be feeling. You’re left with a jarring cinematic experience as it takes too much time to settle into a rhythm and allow its storytelling to shine. This is a film with a lot to say and so much to unpack though, so it’s almost understandable that it struggled with its pacing.
Despite a strong cast that includes Ruth Negga, Liv Taylor and Donald Sutherland, many are under-utilised and the film is expected to be carried on the performance of Pitt. Whilst he does an incredible job, his character is often broody and aloof to a degree that becomes rather tedious to watch. The nuances around Roy’s struggles – his complicated relationship with his father as well as his deteriorated marriage – are handled clumsily for the majority of the time, despite the film trying to so hard to make insightful points.
Whilst it’s always interesting to have a film pivot into a new direction when you least expect it, Ad Astra feels like it never knows quite where it wants to go and becomes an impulsive, reckless adventure that half finishes ideas with complete disregard for the viewer and the questions you’re left with.
A visual masterpiece
Despite the failings in the script from Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross at times though, the film as a visual experience is quite something. There are so many jaw-dropping shots that remind you of how beautiful, terrifying and lonely space can be. The film is as ambitious with its visuals as it is with its content matter but at least the cinematography achieves its lofty ambitions thanks to the team of Gray and acclaimed Swedish cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema. This is a film that needs to be watched and enjoyed on a big screen to really appreciate how well they captured space travel.
I watched the film in 4DX and whilst I’m usually not a fan of the interactive format, the way it was utilised in the film was masterful and served to enhance the experience rather than detract from it. It was by and large the best experience I’ve had with 4DX and a beautifully shot film goes a long way in achieving that.
An ambitious space travel film
Ad Astra should be commended on how ambitious the film felt in its storytelling though. Whilst it does seem to stumble with the weight of its own expectations, it’s refreshing for Hollywood to attempt to do something so different in a genre you’d assume you’ve seen it all in. Despite having a blockbuster cast and some thrilling action beats, you should go into Ad Astra with the mindset of “cinema nouveau” rather than “Hollywood”. The film is an ambitious take on space travel and uses that premise to unpack a lot of societal issues, such as complicated father-son dynamics, morality, failing marriages and more.
It is this unexpected direction that can leave you confused when you merely expected a space film, but also left provoked once you walk out of the film. Mostly because the film left a lot of topics unanswered or half tackled.
If you’re okay with watching something that is brave and experimental – to the degree that it stumbles in certain areas despite excelling in others – then Ad Astra is a film you absolutely have to watch and on the big screen. If you’re looking for a space travel film that focuses on the technology and innovative mechanics that comes with the genre, you may want to sit this one out.
Last Updated: September 20, 2019