Ad Astra review: Profound, visually sumptuous sci-fi
Luke Channell | On 29, Jan 2020
Director: James Gray
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler
James Gray’s previous film, Lost City of Z, delved into unexplored regions of the Amazon rainforest. His newest, Ad Astra, sees Gray once again examining man’s relationship to the unknown with ingenuity and emotion. Set in a brilliantly rendered near-future, Ad Astra focuses on astronaut Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) mission across the solar system to stop a series of mysterious power surges which have been wreaking havoc back on Earth. Gorgeous cinematography, a hypnotic score and a career-best performance from Pitt combine to form this beautiful, affecting sci-fi trip.
We first see Roy in action on the International Space Antenna when an electrical surge hits the structure and leaves Roy hurtling uncontrollably towards earth, attempting to remain conscious so he can release his emergency parachute. It’s an impressively staged, gripping opening sequence, which illustrates Roy’s razor-sharp focus and detachment from normal human emotions; his pulse never rises above 80bpm.
Emotionally stunted by the losses of his past, McBride must face his compartmentalised feelings when he is sent to the suspected source of the surges, the site of the long-lost Lima Project. This ill-fated expedition to Neptune, commanded by McBride’s father, Dr Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), aimed to make contact with potential alien life, but its crew have been missing for 16 years and Roy must now uncover the truth behind their disappearance.
While Ad Astra contains several heart-stopping action set pieces, including a breathtaking moon-buggy chase sequence, it prioritises meditations on a number of philosophical questions over CGI flashiness. Roy’s melancholy voiceover underscores the film, providing an intimate examination on masculinity, loneliness, repression, grief and father/son relations. In less capable hands, all this existential contemplation might came across as a bit on-the-nose, but Pitt’s superlative performance manages to make his character’s angst palpable and compelling.
While Pitt’s supporting turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has garnered awards, this mesmerising lead turn has been overlooked. His physical and vocal performances are deeply expressive, the slightest of changes in facial expression and tone of voice conveying a multitude of emotions. It’s undeniably one of Pitt’s most restrained yet powerful performances and one that continually evokes pathos for his character.
Supporting this stand-out performance is Gray’s masterful direction. He implements pristine cinematography, a captivating colour palette and exquisite framing to stunning effect. This is a director in complete control of his craft. On top of this, Max Richter’s atmospheric score adds another layer of emotion and Kevin Thompson’s superb production design imbues the film with a real believability. This is a near-future where the moon has been commercialised into a tacky tourist trap and Thompson cleverly paints a very plausible picture of what real-life space travel could be like.
Perhaps Ad Astra’s only negative is that it gives little focus to the talented Liv Tyler, who plays Roy’s ex-wife, as she’s sidelined in several brief flashbacks. Aside from this small niggle, Ad Astra is as profound and visually sumptuous as sci-fi films come, with a magnificent, introspective performance from Pitt at its core.