Bolstered by a great Brad Pitt performance and outstanding technical filmmaking, Ad Astra is an ambitious work that doesn't quite hit all its marks.
James Gray's Ad Astra, which went through principal photography in 2017, is the latest in a growing line of prestige space-based dramas to come out this decade. After being delayed multiple times (due to extensive visual effects work and the Disney/Fox merger), the film finally made its world premiere this August at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and is now playing in theaters nationwide. Cinephiles have had to wait patiently for this one, curious to see if it could become a major player in this year's Oscar race. While Ad Astra may not be the next Gravity or The Martian in terms of awards recognition, it's still (mostly) worth the wait. Bolstered by a great Brad Pitt performance and outstanding technical filmmaking, Ad Astra is an ambitious work that doesn't quite hit all its marks.
Pitt stars in Ad Astra as Major Roy McBride, son of esteemed U.S. astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). When Roy was a teenager, Clifford embarked on a deep space mission known as the Lima Project and presumably disappeared years into the expedition. But after electrical power surges sweep through Earth and endanger humanity's existence, U.S. Space Command has reason to believe Clifford is alive on Neptune. SpaceCom recruits Roy for a mission to establish contact with Clifford and see what can be done about the current situation.
Though Ad Astra has the grand scope of modern sci-fi pictures, the story it tells is very intimate and personal. The script, credited to Gray and Ethan Gross, deals with familial themes (particularly the relationship between fathers and sons) and the nature of humanity, giving viewers fascinating food for thought over the course of the two-hour runtime. This provides a sturdy foundation for Roy's character arc, though Ad Astra ultimately feels like it's missing a key ingredient to provide the punch Gray is going for. The film is very much indebted to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, meaning some viewers might find Gray's approach a little too cold and distant. There are comparisons to be made to Interstellar and First Man here, but Ad Astra's emotional core isn't as affecting as the sentiment behind those films. That said, Gray certainly deserves credit for his aspirations, and Ad Astra remains a compelling and interesting watch despite any shortcomings with the script.
Where Gray's vision truly shines is through Ad Astra's technical aspects. The film is a marvel to behold on the big screen, thanks in large part to fantastic visual effects and Hoyte van Hoytema's (who coincidentally shot Interstellar for Christopher Nolan) breathtaking cinematography. Ad Astra is a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, so the IMAX premium is definitely worth it in this case. Granted, Gray doesn't necessarily reinvent the wheel in regards to portraying space on film, but he demonstrates a sharp eye for alluring visuals and creative world-building. And while Ad Astra is definitely a character-based drama, Gray stages a couple of exciting set pieces that illustrate the dangers of space.
On the heels of his acclaimed turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood this summer, Pitt continues a banner 2019 with another strong outing here. In Ad Astra's Pitt's performance is very understated and subtle, and he's able to tap into Roy's inner turmoil and conflict in an effective manner. As written, the character can come across as a bit emotionally detached, though Pitt has moments where he conveys Roy's feelings in ways that feel grounded. This is far from the "showiest" role in Pitt's career, but he proves to be an excellent fit and continues to showcase his range in interesting fashion. In contrast, much of the supporting cast isn't warranted as much screen time to leave a noticeable impression. The exception there is Jones as Clifford, who gets a couple of scenes to flesh out his portrayal of a man gone mad. It may not be enough to have the Roy/Clifford dynamic pay off in the way Gray intended, but Jones is an ever-reliable presence.
Ad Astra may not be generating as much buzz as some of the other titles that played at film festivals this year, but those in the mood for some heady sci-fi should still make the time to check it out. Even if the movie does keep the audience at an arm's length in regard to its emotional component, Gray should be commended for reaching for the stars and delivering something that's thoughtful and visually-stunning. Ad Astra's craftsmanship is among the best of 2019, and Pitt carries the film on his shoulders by demonstrating his versatility. The film falls just short of realizing its larger ambitions, but it's an admirable effort all-around.
Ad Astra is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 122 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and brief strong language.
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- Ad Astra (2019) release date: Sep 20, 2019