WALT DISNEY STUDIOS MOTION PICTURES (2019)
Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler
Three years since the disappointing The Lost City of Z, James Gray takes us to the stars with Ad Astra and goes full science-fiction as humanity heads for Neptune in search of intelligent life in the cosmos. Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride was the astronaut to lead the team on their intrepid search but eventually, all contact was lost and they never returned. Years later, his son Roy (Pitt) is tasked with finding him after strange power surges threaten Earth and mankind – power surges seemingly emanating from Neptune.
Space movies are a wonderful thing when they’re done right. For every Apollo 13, Gravity and Interstellar, however, there’s a Wing Commander, The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Death on Saturn’s Moon. To capture the wonder and sheer awesomeness of space is a skill not easily mastered but with Ad Astra, James Gray and Interstellar DoP Hoyte van Hoytema have done just that. It’s a majestic movie to look at, the terrifying vastness of space is captured as starkly as the ethereal nature of the planets and the tight close-ups of characters – especially Pitt – adds to the claustrophobic tone the movie does so well in creating – with some fine help from Max Richter’s unobtrusive score. It’s a quiet (for the most part), solemn and meditative affair that eschews pace for characters and subtext – but the action that does happen is handled-well and packs a punch. A gripping space chase on the moon sets the pulses racing and a bloodthirsty primate experiment adds a flash of horror to what is already a terrifying place to be but these moments are few and far between as Gray lets Brad Pitt carry the movie on his shoulders and elicits a career-high performance from him. As Roy, Pitt is calm, collected, and near-robotic in his ways, flashes of emotion etch across his tired face and his introspective narration gives us glimpses behind his hardened exterior. It’s a compelling performance, a performance that you can watch, get behind and feel every emotion alongside the character. The support is solid but much less in terms of screen time, though Tommy Lee Jones is great as the grizzled old veteran, however, Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler are given little to do which is a shame.
With Roy’s introspective, brooding odyssey, there’s a large hint of Apocalypse Now that flavours Ad Astra, not in an imitating fashion, but a soulful tip of the hat. The clear messages of familial bonds, the importance of love and just where to find it permeate the movie powerfully – the infinite void of space is one thing but looking closer to home on Earth and valuing the correct things – what’s really important to yourself – is all one really needs. It’s a hero’s journey without ever feeling like one. If slower movies are your bag, you’ll find plenty here to enjoy. If you’re after the whizz-bang and action, you may be disappointed if you can’t buy into the emotion.
With Ad Astra, Gray has fashioned a methodical, personal feeling movie that is heavy on emotion and utterly engrossing. How it stacks up scientifically, I could not tell you (can a piece of spacecraft withstand Neptune’s debris field? No clue) But with its magnetic narrative, these things don’t seem so important. Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances in what is one of the best movies of the year.
September 25th 2019