Ad Astra (2019)
Director: James Gray
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
Synopsis: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Mystery
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language)
Runtime: 2 hr 3 min
Release Date: September 20, 2019
Life can oftentimes be disappointing. We desperately seek to reach a goal or find a solution to a problem that sometimes, simply cannot be solved--or it offers us an answer we refuse to believe. Despite our massive technological advancements over the years, we as humans are limited by our physical capabilities, unable to obtain that which a higher power could easily achieve in the blink of an eye. And yet, because we are human, we valiantly continue to search and problem solve, even though we may fail in our quest in the end. It's the struggle and journey through it all that defines us, and ultimately it's what makes or breaks us.
James Gray's new sci-fi drama Ad Astra (Latin for "to the stars") tells the story of astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) looking for his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing 16 years ago on a space expedition known as the Lima Project. After learning that the recent highly destructive power surges on Earth are being traced to the Lima Project, and getting word that Clifford may in fact still be alive, Roy travels to a Space Command station on Mars to attempt communication with him.
Ad Astra is a slow-paced drama interwoven with philosophical themes that heavily relies on mystery and the unknown for its narrative framework. Though its palpable mysterious quality keeps the film engaging, its lack of action (and slow pace) means that it won't cater to mass audiences, as evident by its current 42% audience rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Those who (like me) are interested in more cerebral sci-fi films (2001: A Space Odyssey, Arrival, Blade Runner) will find much more to enjoy here, as it's one that leaves you thinking of a variety of big ideas as well as character elements as the credits roll.
Besides its avant-garde approach and intellectual focus on the philosophical, Ad Astra also offers up plenty of visual splendor for the eyes, too. The production design is very detailed and well-crafted, from the space station and lunar rovers on the Moon to the interiors of the spacecrafts themselves. The visual effects are also very strong--even stunning at times, as Roy makes his way from the Moon to Mars to the beyond looking for his father. We don't approach Interstellar or Gravity visual levels here, but they are still a sight to behold. The cinematography, done by Hoyte van Hoytema--fresh off Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk--is also strong, employing a ton of close-ups to focus on Roy's emotional state as well as artful, character-driven shots that showcase his isolation as he distances himself from his estranged wife (Liv Tyler) to focus on his career as an astronaut. Praise here also needs to be given on the flip side to Pitt, who delivers another solid performance as an emotionally-torn man trying to figure out who exactly he is, who his father is, and who he wants to be.
Ad Astra isn't your conventional sci-fi flick. Its slow pacing, minimal characters, minimal action, and focus on the bigger, philosophical ideas make it a different kind of viewing. And I love it all the more for those reasons. Because while the film medium is meant to entertain, the best films are ones that entertain and make us think. These kinds of films don't typically rake in the cash at the box office (remember the box office flop of Blade Runner 2049 two years ago?) and this film has a long way to go to make a profit (currently sitting at a worldwide gross of $49 million on an $87 million budget). Yet, I hope studios continue taking chances and making these cerebral sci-fi films. Who knows, maybe the audience will grow in the future.
Written by Anthony Watkins, September 27, 2019