26th Sep2019

‘Ad Astra’ Review

by Alex Ginnelly

Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn, John Ortiz, Freda Foh Shen, Ravi Kapoor, Liv Tyler, Natasha Lyonne | Written by James Gray, Ethan Gross | Directed by James Gray


James Gray aims for the stars in his ‘to the stars’ picture and he almost gets there. Lost between our world and his, the Ad Astra lands somewhere between what could have been greatness and what, in the end, falls short.

Another performance from Brad Pitt, aiming for the bleachers, sees him playing Astronaut Roy McBride. The film follows McBride as he 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.

The movie is far deeper than that plot can ever detail, it also captures something that is almost impossible to explain. I don’t recall the last time I had such difficulty reflecting on a movie. In some ways it’s exactly what I expected going in, in other ways it’s like I never imagined. From the moment of the film’s release it has been hit with a wave of reviews both good and bad, receiving a low audience score but being called a masterpiece by some critics. Though this is no masterpiece, there are shades and strokes of an artist evident which is close to something special, but seems stuck between two worlds.

The world the director seems to be stuck between is that of pleasing the audience and pleasing the critics. There are times the movie takes on a “show don’t tell” approach, but only a few, as the rest is both shown and told through a series of inner monologues – done in voice over by Brad Pitt. These inner monologues feel as if they are holding the audience’s hand through the film at times, just in case we didn’t understand anything. Other times these monologues are powerful and ambiguous like that of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, but other times they are too on the noise and almost wink at the camera.

It’s no surprise to learn then that this film was pitched as Apocalypse Now meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Brad Pitt’s character travelling up stream, not only to find a man, but to find the darkness in man. Ad Astra therefore echoes these themes and it’s the themes of the film that are one of its strongest points, asking us all about the dark heart of mankind and our fear of failure, loneliness and responsibility. It’s in these echoes the film triumphs and isn’t your average sci-fi blockbuster, instead asking real questions and presenting the characters with real ideals.

This, however, is also where the movie’s biggest problem lies. It never fully embraces what it is, it wants the everyday blockbuster-going audience along for the ride as it does too much in trying to please both sides of the audience. With action set pieces that come out of nowhere and seem thrown in for no practical reason other than to have the regular audience go ‘oh cool, guns’. Which includes an action set pieces halfway through the film that genuinely left me looking around the cinema asking ‘really?’.

There are a lot of good and even great things to be found in this film. The three standouts are Max Richter’s incredible score that constantly pulls you deeper into space and further towards the stars. Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer on Interstellar and Dunkirk has yet again crafted visual mastery and in his hands space has never looked so good, producing some jaw dropping visuals. It helps then that the film was shot on 35mm widescreen and every inch of the cinematography is allowed to be soaked in for our pleasure by doing so.

Brad Pitt is also a highlight, and delivers another performance worthy of Oscar talk. He allows his character to be colder than the space he’s in, showing that his emotions are underneath the surface, but always there, allowing himself to open up just when we need him to.

In the end Ad Astra is a slow burn with wonderful filmmaking throughout and ambitious themes. Although the film can feel full of itself and a little pretentious at times, it does capture what it was trying to achieve. I only wish the film embraced it’s themes more and left some of the audience pleasing moments behind on earth.

So, not a masterpiece for James Gray, he tried to push through hardship to the stars, but unfortunately got lost along on the way.

**** 4/5

Ad Astra is in cinemas now.


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