Ad Astra: A “Down to Earth” Sci-fi Film
Ad Astra won’t be this year’s big sci-fi space adventure but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful. More space drama than space adventure, Brad Pitt’s emotional journey to the furthest reaches of our solar system as a blue collar astronaut will leave you in awe.
Looking back at director James Gray’s previous work, Ad Astra might seem to be an unusual departure from his usual drama-centric narratives. While it may be difficult at first to place a large scale sci-fi film among works such as 2000’s crime drama We Own the Night or 2016’s historical Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is as character driven a narrative as the rest of Gray’s works.
The story follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut from the near future, as he is called on to help contact the Lima, a derelict spaceship whose damaged antimatter engine threatens to destroy all of humanity. This mission forces him to confront his relationship with his father and ship’s captain, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee-Jones). For a film that features space tourism, deep space voyages and even moon pirates, the story feels surprisingly grounded. Ultimately, the picture revolves around the deeply flawed relationship between a father and son and how all the space in the universe is not enough to heal a lifetime of trauma. As Roy McBride is forced to travel farther and farther away from Earth, we shift further and further into this complex, father-son relationship. By the second half of the film the more spectacular sci-fi elements take a back seat to the interpersonal relationships.
Brad Pitt brings some of his best acting in years. The film features close ups of Pitt’s stoic demeanor, which allow him to sell the performance. A faint look or slight mannerism speak volumes on the deeply nuanced character of Roy, and the frequent voiceovers carry a similar nuance. Tommy Lee-Jones also delivers a solid performance as a legendary, aging astronaut.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning work makes every location, scene, and frame feel like something out of a dream. He manages to capture not only the vast, alienating emptiness of space but the deep claustrophobia of spaceflight. Max Richter’s score however, fails to live up to the same expectations. Sci-fi films have garnered a reputation for striking music over recent years and Ad Astra seems to come up a little short. It isn’t weak by any means but don’t expect anything akin to something like Interstellar.
Still, this film is not by any stretch of the imagination disappointing. If you want to live out the catharsis of a delicate father-son dynamic, look no further, you’ve found your film for the year.