There was a moment during Ad Astra that I simply stopped caring that the plot didn’t have much going for it. So visually arresting and gorgeously shot is this film that the lack of an engaging narrative ceased to be an issue. Starring Brad Pitt, Ad Astra is the story of Roy McBride who is tasked with travelling to Neptune to search for his long-missing father, a man who may be in danger of destroying all life in the solar system.
Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) left earth when Roy was only 16 to lead Project Lima. The mission was a search for intelligent life and by travelling outside of the sun’s heliosphere, it was hoped there would be more of a chance to find it.
After 16 years, the Lima Project vanished and everyone on board was presumed dead. With his father absent from his life, Roy compartmentalises and moves on, becoming an astronaut himself and hoping that he would have made his father proud.
Ad Astra Review
Roy’s ability to compartmentalise is central to Ad Astra. He’s known as a man whose BPM never rise above 80, even during extremely stressful events and we are expected to view him as a calm, even man, in control of his emotions.
The first example of Roy’s ability to remain calm under pressure is during the film’s incredible opening sequence. We watch as Roy calmly makes his way through corridors, narrating via his thoughts until he steps outside and the camera pans forward to reveal the earth below and the vastness of space above. As Roy descends a ladder and the camera stays above him, the sense of scale and scope is truly awesome.
Once outside the International Space Antenna, a series of power fluctuations cause explosions and send workers tumbling to earth, Roy included, however, as he tumbles and falls he continues to relay calm instructions and information to his command before eventually releasing his chute.
This sequence is but one of many tense and thrilling setpieces in Ad Astra that punctuate the slow, ponderous plot.
After Roy’s fall to earth, he’s told that his father may still be alive and that the antimatter engine powering the Lima may be the cause of the increasingly severe and damaging surges. Roy is tasked with travelling to Mars, via the Moon to send a personal plea to his father and hopefully prevent the end of all life in the solar system.
Director James Gray has taken great steps to ensure that Ad Astra has its own visual language and it does. There are frequent scenes where sharp focus is drawn on Roy while everything is blurry. It’s a motif that crops up again and again throughout, always signalling Roy closing off a part of himself in order to focus on his mission.
Gray has also managed to create an awesome sense of scale across the film. He makes men seem tiny next to the ships they fly in and in turn makes those ships look minuscule against the backdrop of space. Ad Astra owes more than a little to Kubrick’s 2001 and often the tone of the former seems to intentionally ape (no pun intended) the latter.
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While Gray makes space seem foreign and awe-inspiring, he also works hard to add a touch of banality to proceedings. When Roy arrives on the Moon via a commercial flight (on which he’s charged $125 for a blanket) the spaceport is like any commercial airport you’d see on earth. All concrete and escalators it’s home to stores like Subway and Applebees and speaks volumes about the human need for the familiar.
For Roy, the familiar is being solitary. By closing himself off from his emotions, friends and family, he is alone and thus able to focus on the only thing that matters; his mission. Pitt is brilliant as Roy McBride, his voice even and measured, his face stoic and unreadable, for the most part.
When you watch Ad Astra, watch Pitt’s eyes. His face and voice may be calm, but he imbues McBride with this slightly manic quality through the movement of his eyes and his blinks. This is a man who is so controlled, so compartmentalised that he’s losing grip on what’s truly important.
And at the crux of it, that’s what Ad Astra is about. The idea that we, as humans, need to do what we set out to do at the expense of all else. That even if we shut parts of ourselves off, they’re still there, like hatches on a space ship, waiting to be accessed.
There’s a lot to like about Ad Astra. A stunning moon buggy chase, a terrifying distress call mission and of course the gorgeous visuals. However, the core of the film is so heavily weighed down by McBride’s daddy issues it feels, like the spaceport on the moon, banal.
I definitely recommend going to see Ad Astrain the cinema, simply because of the way the visuals engulf you on the big screen. It’s a visually stunning film, with some incredible performances, let down by a lacklustre tale of misery.
Leo Stevenson attended a screening of Ad Astra as a guest of Fox.
Movie title: Ad Astra
Movie description: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.
Director(s): James Gray
Actor(s): Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Genre: Science Fiction