Review: Ad Astra
Jim Norman finds Ad Astra to be both an intriguing character study and a distant disappointment.
The vast expanse of space will forever be a subject for cinematic creativity. Sci-fi provides a way to virtually step into the unknown, thrusting its audience into an uncanny environment of isolation and wonder, where each star, planet, and rocket brings just as much surprise as the last. Yet the skilled filmmaker is able to see through this surface image of space, drawing on the themes of loneliness and depravity to create a commentary on the human mind rather than the wonder of the stars.
James Gray’s Ad Astra tackles these issues head-on. Much to the detriment of the primary plot, Gray’s planet-hopping exhibition is an intriguing exploration of grief, succession, and depression. Whilst the film is undoubtedly flawed, Gray achieves a refreshing view inwards in an environment where so many would simply look out.
Set in the frighteningly near future, defined as ‘a time of both hope and conflict’, Ad Astra sees Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) set forth on a mission to the furthest reaches of the solar system in an attempt to find his missing father and learn of his failed mission that now threatens the Earth.
“The film ultimately boils down to an in-depth character study, here brilliantly acted by the ever-talented Brad Pitt.”
Undoubtedly, this is a film made with the utmost respect for the genre, acting almost as a tour of sci-fi films’ ‘best bits’. There is a near-constant shower of visual references to both old and new examples of cinematic space exploration with Gray clearly drawing heavily on Kubrick’s defining sci-fi picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey along with other works.
Yet amidst the waves of self-doubt, bouts of depression, and the constant uncertainty of his father’s morals – each openly vocalised through the use of voice over – it appears that Gray here has looked closer to Coppola’s self-exploratory Apocalypse Now as a source text than necessarily a focus on space. As a result of this, the film ultimately boils down to an in-depth character study, here brilliantly acted by the ever-talented Brad Pitt. We are provided with intimate close-ups and disorientating points of view, each of which brings us closer into the mind of McBride until we too come to see the world through the misted glass of a space helmet.
From the overwhelming grain and restriction of Earth; to the desert-like barren wasteland of Mars, here a wash of near non-distinguishable oranges and yellows; and finally, onto the chronic isolation of Neptune, Ad Astra traces Roy McBride’s self-discovery through the implication that a departure from home means a departure from all comfort. Liv Tyler’s mostly flashback cameo appearances as McBride’s wife come to represent a life that this isolated astronaut has left behind; whilst Pitt, with sleep-deprived eyes and day-old stubble, expertly presents the image of a man in crisis: unsure of his mission and unsure of himself.
“Unlike the enduring peril of space in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the danger of the unknown is here stilted rather than imminent, with each sequence of peril seemingly having little to no effect on the cool-headed McBride.”
However, it is difficult to appreciate the film’s merits when they are presented as a mere footnote that is swamped by the glaring narrative issues. Both predictable and staggered, this nuts-and-bolts plot is nothing out of this world. Scenes of peril are loosely stitched together around a staggered narrative that is awash with physical inaccuracies, which ultimately result in a series of mostly entertaining yet unengaging set pieces.
Gray’s depiction of space is one of self-discovery and it is therefore to the detriment of the film as a whole that this key theme is forced to hide behind a plot that moves more like a series of video game levels, rather than an engaging and flowing narrative. Unlike the enduring peril of space in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the danger of the unknown is here stilted rather than imminent, with each sequence of peril seemingly having little to no effect on the cool-headed McBride. Characters come and go, planets grow to fill the screen and then fade into nothingness as the plot continues its determined course from one point to the next.
Ad Astra has neither the peril of the aforementioned Gravity, nor the deep intensity of Claire Denis’ shock 2018 sci-fi feature, High Life. It is, however, an interesting exploration of mental wellbeing, the weight of succession, and the effect of isolation. These themes each hold a quality of their own yet they are a definite undertone to the film, a faint star that struggles to shine through the glare of its faulted plot.