Review: Ad Astra
For most, Ad Astra‘s biggest draw is Brad Pitt starring in a galaxy-faring sci-fi film. Pitt is indeed great, but the real allure here is that it is James Gray‘s follow-up to the underseen The Lost City of Z, an old-fashioned adventure film with a deeply contemplative performance from Charlie Hunnam that proved you can still make a big-screen, mid-budget adventure movie for adults. While it didn’t succeed financially, it was enough for Fox to give Gray a bigger budget for this even more ambitious film. Tapping into many of the same themes as the director’s previous work, Ad Astra is a grounded (pun intended) take on the space adventure genre with a mature and stoic lead performance.
Ad Astra continues the trend in Gray’s work of awe-inspiring visuals. The opening shots of light flares and circles brilliantly convey a sense of isolation right from the start. The visuals are a means of communication that is thankfully less heavy-handed than the script. Gray aimed to make a realistic space travel film and certainly succeeded; his vision of the near-future is fairly convincing, if colored by overt anti-capitalist cliches. Still, the advanced commercialization of space travel is eerie to behold because it feels like it may eventually be a reality. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who worked with Christopher Nolan on Interstellar and Dunkirk and with Spike Jonze on Her, uses his copious experience well here, and his ability to convey space and depth out in the cosmos helps the film become visually distinctive.
Pitt narrates throughout the movie and literally spells out his feelings and articulates the themes of the film. Some may find this approach hackneyed, and it does get overbearing at times. Still, Pitt breathes enough life into the dialogue that it works fairly well. The actor deserves accolades for one of his most wounded and weary performances he’s given, which is saying something given the wounded and wearied characters he’s played over the years. His character is often reluctant to show emotion, for reasons the film makes clear, yet he lets out little bursts of emotion over the course of the runtime that prolong his character’s staying power.
The great Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and Tommy Lee Jones are each present, but in a fairly limited capacity. Liv Tyler appears as well in an even more limited role. It seems a waste to use these fairly big names on bit parts, but they all prove crucial to the journey. The film’s treatise about how humanity continues to run from its problems can be heavy-handed. The metaphors revolve around our inability to escape our inherent issues no matter how far we go; the key ideas are lit up in neon. Still, the actors make it resonate.
It should be noted that for my viewing of Ad Astra I used AMC’s D-Box. For those unaware, D-Box provides a full-motion chair intended to mirror the experience on screen not unlike a theme park ride. D-Box didn’t really add to or detract from the film, even though the D-Box is very sensitive and delivers some pretty fine-tuned motion. For example, when a door slams shut on screen, only a tiny part of the lower chair back vibrated. The tilting never became too unpleasant, but I am not prone to motion sickness. At worst it feels like a cheaply-made massage chair. D-Box is perhaps worth trying once if you have it near you, but not worth going out of your way for.
Ad Astra is an imperfect work. Gray’s films can be unwieldy and feel as if the director is too attached to every moment of quiet listlessness and won’t let his editor cut away some of the excess. The way this movie skirts around certain plot points also feels sloppy, even if it helps achieve the thematic points Gray wants. Still, Ad Astra is remarkable in that it is strong, original sci-fi boasting a fair-sized budget and wide release. This film is worth seeing to support more of this type of cinema in theaters, and the fact that it’s a strong and contemplative film is a bonus.