Ad Astra (2019): Review

The world around us is vast, complex, and unforgiving. Nature confounds us while, at the very same moment, provides the tools we needed to survive. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the very drawing board for the life we live now. Everything we know, everything we experience, is intricate.

Humans are no exception to this rule. The dissatisfaction for what we have, the constant need for more. More knowledge, more understanding, more access. At our very darkest moments, we can toss everything aside and cave into that natural inquisitiveness, craving the answers we feel we are entitled to.

James Gray’s Ad Astra explores both of these concepts: the idea of the world around us and the part we play in it. It challenges the very ideas that a lot of people take for granted. Family, existence, and the notion that there’s always something we don’t know. Gray has constructed something so antithetical in its foundations in the way that it tackles both the inner workings of relationships as well as the more cerebral contemplations of interstellar life.

There is a lot to unpack with this film, especially considering the amount of themes Gray manages to explore. Aside from the aforementioned ideas, Ad Astra shines a light on loneliness, distance, connection, and legacy. Repeat viewings may uncover more that were deftly woven into the smart script and its progression.

Ad Astra was shot by the exceptionally talented DP Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her, Dunkirk) who once again proves how adept he is at tackling the cosmos through inventive use of framing and lighting. Lighting in particular stands out in a lot of the astral sequences, complementing both the visual style and the thematic core at the heart of the movie. There is a dissertation to be written by someone much more intelligent than me about how the cinematography of this film highlights the themes and ideas Gray presents in the script. van Hoytema doesn’t waste a single shot here, each one telling a story within itself, moving it along in such an impressive visual way. The best-photographed film I’ve seen so far this year. If this isn’t prime for awards consideration, I don’t know what is.

Accompanying the luscious, reflective camerawork is Max Richter’s haunting score. Richter follows a lot of typical sci-fi motifs with the music which is definitely not meant pejoratively. There are echoes of Justin Hurwitz’s supreme work on First Man (2018) in the instrumentation and the way the music is deliberately used to accentuate certain moments. It becomes almost transfixing, blending into the thread of the movie so brilliantly that its presence is more of an afterthought, almost like a hypnotism. It’s nothing short of terrific, and exactly what a musical score should be. Present and affecting without being alienating. It should contribute to mood and atmosphere, to increase immersion into the world of the movie and Richter accomplishes this to a stunning degree of success.

Ad Astra, for all its technical stylings and visual mastery, is at its core a character piece. Our protagonist, Roy McBride, is present in virtually every single scene, every single moment. The movie hinges on his ability to be a compelling character to posit the ideas Gray is exploring. Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances to date with this movie, one that is balanced on his shoulders. If he fails, so does the movie. There’s far too much nuance at play for him to fail, though. Gray serves up a complicated, interesting character on a silver platter, ready for Pitt to explore and sink his teeth into. Again, similarly to Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong, Roy McBride is a very internalised character. There’s an inherent detachment to the world around him, which is intriguing considering his occupation. He explores the wider cosmic arena his whole life, yet is unable to connect to things he can touch, see, and smell. Pitt’s eyes come alive in every moment of raw stoicism. Roy isn’t a man of many words, but he doesn’t need them. Aside from one scene in particular, Roy is methodical and precise with both his words and his actions. There is a job to be done and he is there to do it. Pitt subtly charges these moments with a fierce determination, which is telling of larger issues at play in Roy’s mind. Why does he choose the life he does? Why does he shut off his issues as easy as shutting down a comms system? There are questions following Roy through the entire movie, and the answers lie in Brad Pitt’s fast-blinking, omnipresent eyes.

If Roy McBride is the fulcrum of the journey, the stalwart centrepiece who we follow, then Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride is the inverse of that ideal. Through another layered, affecting performance, Jones manages to convey the hard answers to those even harder questions. He has some great moments, and his first scene with Pitt is a killer, beautifully written and performed. It’s one you anticipate, but it still comes and thwarts any preconceived ideas you had about what it might entail. Jones makes the most of his time on screen, in a genius moment of casting. Another fleeting supporting turn comes from Ruth Negga, whose character is shrouded in mystery which makes you ache for more development, but also works as a temporary presence. She’s just nuanced enough to not appear superfluous, partly due to Negga capitalising on every single second she has on screen.

I’m relatively unfamiliar with James Gray’s other films but I’m definitely curious about them now, thinking about the wonderful script he co-wrote with Ethan Gross for this movie. It’s startlingly original, while still drawing off movies of the same ilk. The microcosmic juxtaposition of Roy’s relationship with his father and human relationships with both their own existence and the world around them is cleverly executed, doubling down on the themes that really make the film intellectually stimulating. There is just the right mix of dynamic action moments to equilibrate the weighty emotional depth of the story that unfolds around these moments. It’s a very challenging tonal balance to accomplish and it doesn’t always work, but the fact that it does most of the time reflects just how good the script is. The voiceover used at appropriate intervals, and the dialogue is mostly excellent. Pitt’s rumbling timbre really works for the character and infuses the words with meaning which makes for great characterisation even in those introspective moments. It’s astounding how Gray can investigate the schism of Roy and Clifford’s relationship while drawing parallels between that and the ‘bigger picture’ aspect of the story, and also make those things organic with their placement in the film.

Ad Astra is a magnificent film and cinematic achievement, showcasing breathtaking visuals and the best Brad Pitt performance in years. A rattling masterpiece brimming with intellect and vitality, Ad Astra‘s trenchant themes raise some hard questions, but the answers can be found among the stars – each one a window into a life gone by. When Roy looks out into the cosmos, it feels like he’s searching for something. Meaning perhaps? Justification? Acceptance within the vast cavern of nothingness? Maybe all three, but interpretation is a wonderful thing. Ad Astra is a shining example of something that gives all the answers you need to follow the story, but leaves you searching for more once you leave the cinema screen.

Remember, humans are always searching for more.

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