Anyone who has been keeping tabs on my accounts and reviews should be fairly aware that Ad Astra is my most anticipated film for the rest of 2019. And I am here to officially tell you that James Gray's latest galactic endeavor not only lives up to the hype, but that it is 100% very much that Apocalypse Now in space bitch. To those unaware of Gray's eclectic filmography, I strongly encourage letting Ad Astra be your very own personal welcome to one of the most unique directors working. This is quite clearly his most grandiose and visionary film to date, unsurprisingly costing almost triple the amount of his prior undermentioned Charlie Hunnam/Robert Pattinson film, The Lost City of Z (2016). And while I feel that it will unfortunately underperform (especially compared to Fox's The Martian) at box offices due to its more bleak and patient narrative, I for one am all in for yet another unique entry into Gray's repertoire! Each new film he adds to his noteworthy track record always tackles a series of new and interesting concepts, ranging from mobsters, blue-collar contractors, the immigrant's "American Dream", police corruption, romance, to even a Victorian jungle expedition. But one thing that Gray always delivers, quite possibly most poetically displayed in Ad Astra, is the familial relation between a father and a son. In his short but varied filmography, I don't hesitate to proclaim that Ad Astra might just be Gray's best and boldest film. I implore that you make time to see this in theatres, as it is more than likely going to place itself in my top three films of the year, if not at number one.
Set in the desolate "not too distant future", Ad Astra presents us with an eccentric yet highly plausible and foreseeable future on Earth and beyond. Attacked by unknown energy "surges" that threaten all life on Earth, US Armed Forces Astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) is tasked with venturing far beyond the point that most have dared and dreamed of going, to Neptune. To date (within the film), only one group has successfully made it that far, The Lima Project, which was led by none other than the most decorated astronaut of their time, Dr. Clifton McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy's thought to be dead father. And while Roy's destination takes him to the eighth farthest planet, Gray ensures that we get a glimpse of just how advanced society's reach has extended into our solar system. The provided for world building is not necessarily esoteric, but its abundance of detail and technological approximations are certainly understated in a positive light. An Earth where the human race has inevitably pushed further and further into our galactic pursuits to the point of the Moon's commercialization. With something that Virgin Galactic and the likes of Elon Musk will surely drool over, James Gray presents us with a future where anyone who can afford it, may take a commercial flight from one of Earth's many ports to the Moon. While onboard enjoying the complimentary televisions, help yourself to a blanket and pillow pack... it'll only cost you $125. Ad Astra is Gray's biggest and most expensive film to date, and he certainly does not lack on providing euphoric visuals, tear-inducing music, and most astonishingly, a terrific sense of minute detail and unpronounced background. Take for example, how it is casually mentioned that they arrived on Mars within seven weeks. A trek that according to last year's InSight took a total of six months or roughly twenty-six weeks. This is paired with the ease of lunar transportation, the advancements in fuel, propulsion, aerodynamics, trajectory, and overall technology, and the film provides us with more detail and progression that is merely laying in the background to the film. And while some logical curiosities arise from some of the film's intriguing takes, the silent world building lore is fully welcome. Look and listen, and you shall find. In one of the film's most mainstream yet stunning nonetheless sequences, we are treated to a lunar high-speed chase. Within this explosive sequence, we are exposed to our first indication that humanity's plague of war has carried over into our grand search for meaning and life. "Exploration isn't always a noble venture", and we're shown all too well how John F. Kennedy's once righteous push to space has come a long way from just exploring — informed that the Moon has been torn into sectors, with each country owning different spaces. In between these conflicting lands, we also discover that so-called "pirate activity" occurs in dark zones, which we experience with laser guns, cannons, and rovers. The Moon sequence is certainly where the film is at its most big studio mainstream, almost reminding me of the underrated effectiveness of Total Recall's commentary on big business, overpopulation, and class systems. We see how in our own desire to escape our dying planet and better our race, we continue to bring the very same things that are causing our self-destruction. In the words of Major McBride (Pitt), "We're world-eaters". I would have loved to explore more of the Moon, especially with some marketing having showcased certain deleted scenes. But Gray's ambitious dedication to sticking to his own vision, placing traditional tropes and genre expectations aside, is truly admirable. As the films own namesake, he truly aims for the stars.
Brad Pitt in Ad Astra, photo by Francois Duhamel, courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Max Richter and Lorne Balfe's essential chilling reverberating score, paired with Hoyte van Hoytema's soon to be heralded iconic cinematography, Ad Astra delivers one of the most striking multi-Academy Award worthy film experiences to date. Neither of the two superb results come as a surprise, seeing how both Balfe and Hoytema consistently deliver, especially coming right off of M: I Fallout and Dunkirk, respectively. I was often reminded of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" with a tinge of Mass Effect, while the visuals so naturally and logically rival Hoyte's prior Interstellar. There are a plethora of euphoric shots that will surely make for myriads of cellphone/computer wallpapers and posters. One of the standout elements is the colour array, switching up the palette in almost every sequence. From the pristine clarity of the Moon, the sulfuric rust of Mars, to the cold and barren rings of Neptune, Hoyte majestically infused each planetary landscape with tasteful lens flares and reflective crystal prisms. I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for those stylized glass reflective lights and control board shots. It's worth mentioning that any use of CGI fit into the overall look of the film, because I barely noticed any glaring eyesores. The cinematography so eloquently captures both the vast beauty and breathtaking epicness of space, as well as the isolated hostility that it dictates upon the human race's frail mental and physical capacity. This is a space epic you do not want to pass up, and one that demands to be seen on the largest and loudest screen possible; IMAX if possible.
James Gray's space epic posits many ideas and questions, from man's eternal search for the divine, the insatiable extraterrestrial curiosity, the answer to a dying planet, resource consumption, galactic colonialism, and more. Both popular Latin phrases, whether it be Virgil's "sic itur ad Astra" in search of immortality to the stars, or the more common "per Aspera ad Astra" through hardships to the stars, function in manifestation. We are confronted with what feels almost like a literary voyage (perhaps in thought, leaning more into Joseph Conrad rather than Apocalypse Now), where maybe, just maybe, all of our cosmic searches and achievements come off more as a pyrrhic dream for security, rather than something worthwhile. But what struck the hardest at its core, was a pure and modern search for meaning. Whether that be in the form of any of the questions above, from alien life to the face of God, perhaps it's in the simple warm embrace of a loved one. Ad Astra is not a war film, it is not a big studio sci-fi action film, and it is certainly not a film for everyone. Ad Astra is a hauntingly gorgeous familial drama set predominantly in the endless void of space. It's a pure introspective meditation further propelled by a shockingly effective emotional search for meaning between emotionally repressed father and son. There are scenes that evoke plenty of past sci-fi films, most notable at initial viewing, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, Solaris, Alien, and Interstellar. And while I'm sure plenty will forcibly compare and contrast very specific scenes amongst them, I was quite impressed with just how easily Ad Astra hit me to my core. One scene in particular, where Brad Pitt's Major Roy McBride must send a message to his father, so beautifully captured the prime directive and fragile masculinity of the film, that I'll admit a few tears ran down my cheeks. At its most vital, the film focuses on Roy McBride's desperate yet pragmatic search for his father, Clifford McBride. The rift I between them quite literally stretching beyond the cosmos, functioning as Roy's governmental duty and his own personal crusade to find the love he was robbed of at youth. A truly sympathetic plight that most can relate to, but quite obviously particularly those with "daddy issues". The sins of the father arise once more. Brad Pitt delivers yet another 2019 Oscar's worthy performance (lead) with his anguish filled preternaturally calm space explorer. This long trek into the dark recesses of space and his own mind make for quite the psychological and poignant tale of belonging. The film provides a very talented yet small cast, including Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Natasha Lyonne, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones, but the entire emotional arc rides on Pitt and his incredible ocular acting. The amount of emotion that Pitt exudes from his facial expressions is phenomenal; his role as Roy earns thousands of descriptive words without uttering a single word. Whether it be the quiver of an eyebrow, a furrowed brow, the twitch of the lip, or his most impressive ability to subdue everything under a facade of control, Pitt undoubtedly carries this almost 3-hour epic. I strongly predict that the extensive use of a captain's log journal-style voice-over will erk a few, especially when Pitt's body language says enough. It would have been a nice additive to have had more scenes with Sutherland and Negga, but I had a feeling that during the multiple delays, some scenes were cut. And apropos of the extensive delays, it also seemed that the film added a few unnecessary scenes that diminished what could have been a much stronger ending. A rewatch is wholly recommended, and I intend to do so within the weekend. While some are sure to be underwhelmed by the narrative arc or by Roy's development, I was thoroughly impressed and pleased with the more sincere approach Gray took.
Brad Pitt in Ad Astra, photo by Francois Duhamel, courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Ad Astra certainly doesn't lean into its metaphysical aspects as much as Interstellar depended upon, but it does provide some less than cinematic truths to ponder on. And for a film this elegantly crisp in its precision, it does work all for the better. Sometimes what you're looking for is not billions of light-years away, or long forgotten in the past, but perhaps it is right in front of you. The trick is to grab it and never let go, lest you lose it forever. Like the myriads of intentionally monotonous psychological examinations that Roy must submit himself through after every action, the film examines our role as a race in this expansive often mundane universe. Not only does James Gray place the human tendency to escape, underneath the microscope, he dissects why we so commonly choose to restart rather than confront reality and find a solution. One could argue for the themes of escapism, abandonment, and fear of the unknown, just as easily as those of exploration, duty, and courage in the face of adversity. Unlike Brad Pitt's unflinching stone old demeanor, there is a deconstruction or subversion of the noble space explorer; as upon the opposite side of that same coin, there's a possible narrative of an entire race escaping from their home and life in search of something better. Ad Astra propels you through various planets in search for meaning, in a world where there might not be any. A world where the greatest discoveries may not be in sacrificing your life for the pursuit of science and nationalistic duty, but perhaps in enjoying what you have, when you have it. The great artist Rihanna once exclaimed, "We found love in a hopeless place", and I quite liked the impacting resonance that Gray's similar message rendered. "We're all we've got".
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