Director: James Gray
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland
Space. The final frontier. Words so spoken often at the beginning of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode or other Star Trek movie. Though Ad Astra (Latin for ‘to the stars) ain’t no Star Trek, much about it rings true to those words, with space not only being the final frontier for human exploration, but also how it makes us reflect on ourselves; the mind is the final frontier in understanding how we operate mentally as living beings, much of it still to be explored. Although the trailer boasts something of an Armageddon-style adventure-thriller with Brad Pitt in the driver’s seat (complete with Liv Tyler hanging around again) and promises much in the way of mystery, does it really deliver?
Sometime in the near future, a strong power surge originating from somewhere in space hits the Earth, causing major disruption, casualties and fatalities. Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is called up by SpaceCom (United States Space Command) to investigate the origins of the surge, thought to be connected to the Lima Project, a search for extra-terrestrial intelligence based on the outer edge of our galaxy. McBride is sent because it was his father, H. Clifford McBride (Jones), who headed up the Lima Project, though he is missing, presumed dead, somewhere around Neptune. SpaceCom believe something has gone severely awry with the project, so much so that the entire galaxy could be at risk, and McBride’s emotional connection with his potentially alive and hostile father could be the key to saving the galaxy and all life within it.
Ad Astra is one of those movies that’s ten-per-cent about the ending, ninety-per-cent about the journey. That’s not to say the ending is good or bad (that’s for you to decide, as it is rather an audience divider), but it’s really about McBride’s search for inner peace and the need to make amends with his father. In many ways it’s an elaborate metaphor (go figure) for the emotional turmoil many people go through when trying to reconcile their wellbeing with something that is having a huge effect on their life, and the lengths they have to go through mentally to achieve some kind of harmony within themselves. The more director/co-writer Gray digs into McBride’s thought process – much of the movie’s dialogue is either McBride’s inner monologues or spoken answers when going through psychological evaluations – the more that is revealed to us about him personally, making for quite the deep and well-constructed character. It’s also interesting to follow his process in coming to terms with his own human flaws and the outside influences that have made him that way.
There is one downside to the movie as a whole, a downside that stems from the amount of flow-of-thought dialogue and McBride’s inner journey, and that’s the pacing. There are a handful of action scenes, and even a couple of build-ups to something more horrific, but not enough of them are interspersed with the more mentally taxing scenes, so it can feel like too much at times. It can feel slow, to the point of being tiresome, particularly with Pitt’s tendency to be monotonous in his delivery. In the sense that it’s realistic to a person’s thought process is spot on, but putting that on screen and keeping your audience from drifting away into their own thoughts is a difficult balancing act, and Gray doesn’t quite always succeed.
Generally speaking, Gray just about manages to keep it interesting by not messing around with the visuals. It cannot be argued that the production design isn’t top class; some serious thought and work has been put into it, and it certainly rivals any other space-based film or T.V. show. If 2001: A Space Odyssey met Gravity and messed around they would probably have birthed Ad Astra (with many also saying Apocalypse Now could have thrown in some DNA), and although Gravity was a landmark in its visual representation of space, Ad Astra goes much further, with added planets and detailing on space crafts and such. You will feel the vastness of space just as you did in Gravity, and you will understand the depth of thought and character that was apparent in 2001 (though that is a much more difficult movie to get your head around). The immensity of space in relation to the immensity of the human mind go hand in hand here, as your mind can be just as blown by the visuals as it may be by the connections you can make to the dialogue.
Pitt is an excellent actor, there’s not doubt about that. From humble beginnings with no intentions of being an actor in the late 1980s to the versatile performer he is today, his name alone will attract audiences to this movie. His performance as McBride is potentially a career-best, showcasing the depth of emotion that could only come from someone not only with extensive acting experience, but life experience to boot. Yes, as mentioned, his delivery is monotonous at times, but as long as you can keep up with his performance you can remain enticed by his character’s development, a credit to co-writers Gray and Ethan Gross. It’s essentially a one-man show, as supporting performances from the likes of Negga and Sutherland, while substantial and superb in themselves, are purely there to ferry Pitt’s lead performance along. When we come to Jones as McBride’s father, there’s no change in pace, everything is still very much on the same level, however just like Negga and Sutherland, Jones is also there to guide Pitt’s McBride to the next turning point in his self-discovery. At times you may wonder if Jones’s character is even really there, or if much of him is borne of McBride’s unsettled psyche, and that says a lot about Jones’s performance, himself being a long-standing and acclaimed actor, proving nce more that his accolades are justified.
If you’re going to make a film about existentialism, what would be the best setting for it? Well, space, of course. Where else could possibly make us dig deep into the internal recesses of our minds and realise our insignificance (both personally and as a member of the human race) in the grander scheme of things? The irony of something so big and so vast that in turn encourages major self-reflection and inner contemplation is popular fodder amongst filmmakers. If this is all sounding a bit much for your head, then you will need to either go with it or turn away completely, because Ad Astra is a dense two-hours of heavy exposition and emotional inner monologuing that Hamlet would be proud of. It’s absolutely worth seeing, and will definitely make its mark in the history of cinema, just make sure you’re not watching it on a full belly after a long work day (or at least down a Red Bull or something) so you can keep up with it all.