Ad Astra

A Beautiful Meditation on Human Connection


Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Astronaut floating in space

It’s safe to say that 2019 has been a largely disappointing year for film. Despite the success of films such as Avengers: Endgame and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, highly anticipated movies such as Glass, Captain Marvel and Shazam have been anywhere from sub-par to downright bad. I’ve spent the better part of the past nine months looking for the elusive, near-perfect film, and it’s finally here.

Ad Astra is written and directed by James Gray and stars Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, a stoic astronaut whose heart rate has never gone above 80 BPM. While working on a 20-mile-tall space antenna, a power surge sends him and several other astronauts falling back to Earth, a freak accident which he barely survives. Afterwards, he is told by his superiors that the power surge may have been caused by his father, presumed dead for many years. Now armed with this knowledge, Roy must travel to the far edge of the solar system to find his father and stop him from wiping out all of humanity.

Originality is very hard to come by in the film industry. In the age of sequels, reboots and $400 million blockbusters, the few original films that are still made today normally fly under the radars of more casual film-goers. In an attempt to avoid this, Ad Astra was marketed as a straightforward action movie, but it’s really so much more than that. Through careful writing and great directing, the film discusses the connection between a father and his son, the effect that prolonged solitude can have on a person, and the absence of God, resulting in what may end up being one of the best films of 2019.

As expected, the visual effects are beautiful to behold. As Roy goes deeper and deeper into the void of space, the CGI starts to become increasingly noticeable, but the film is still a visual treat. However, this is mostly due to Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography. Every moment of the film is shot impeccably, and it’s hard to imagine a future in which van Hoytema’s work won’t be in the Oscars conversation.

The performances are also incredibly strong. Brad Pitt is clearly having an incredible 2019, turning in what might be a career-best performance as Roy. He’s clearly mastered the art of stoicism, where an eye twitch can display a world of pain and hurt better than any line of dialogue. Since we, as an audience, spend the entire film listening to Roy’s thoughts, which comprises most of the film’s dialogue, the success of the film as a whole rests on Pitt’s dramatic chops, and he pulls it off with gusto. Tommy Lee Jones is also fantastic in his brief performance as Roy’s father, a man who is so focused on continuing his failed mission that he can’t bear going back to Earth. It’s fascinating to watch as we see that Roy is turning into his father, a man who has been absent from the majority of his son’s life, and who might be a madman. Roy’s career and outlook on life closely models the life of his father, and his progression was utterly hypnotic.

However, as great as the acting, cinematography, and visual effects are, the true MVP s of the film are James Gray and the composers. Max Richter and Lorne Balfe succeed in making a truly memorable score, but not in the way that the Jaws theme is memorable. This score fades into the background, but helps every scene progress to the point where it’s impossible to imagine the scene without it. As a director, James Gray proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has the chops to make a big-budget movie like this, and his work deserves award recognition when the time comes. Despite the false lure of the film containing several action scenes, the few set pieces that are there are absolutely white-knuckled. There’s a scene involving a wild animal that had me at the edge of my seat. But, the best scenes in the film are easily the smaller scenes where it’s just Roy’s thoughts, and a montage of what he’s doing. Since the characters aren’t speaking, the scenes rely on Gray’s directing just as much as Pitt’s acting, and they pulled it off. But, the most beautiful aspect of the film just might be Roy’s arc, how he changes throughout the course of the story. I don’t want to say why, because I feel like that would be spoiler territory. But, Roy’s progression as a character had such an impact that my cold, jaded heart cracked open, and I began to feel for him.

Overall, Ad Astra may be in competition for the best film of the year. Benefiting from sure-handed direction, visual style, great cinematography, and possibly a career-best performance from Brad Pitt, it might just be a flawless film. However, if you go into this film expecting a straight-up action movie, you’re going to leave wanting your money back. If you’re a fan of jaw-dropping action scenes, stay away. If you like everything to be explained to you, stay away. If you’re a fan of random comedy, definitely stay far away. Basically, if you’re a casual audience member who just wants to be entertained, you’re going to hate this movie. But, if you’re a fan of films that are actually trying to be art, this is the film we’ve been waiting for.

Rating: A+