REVIEW: ‘Ad Astra’ is Visually Stunning and Heart-Wrenching

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Ad Astra

Ad Astra, directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z), takes place in the far future. U.S. Space Command, a special brand of the military, has managed to utilize space travel to colonize other planets. The film follows astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) as he undertakes the most harrowing mission of his career. McBride has earned renown for his ability to stay emotionally stable under duress, but that ability is put to the test when he discovers that his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) is conducting an experiment that could destroy the universe as we know it. Traveling across the universe to stop a father he barely knew, McBride grapples with the choices he’s made during his career and the perils of the void.

From the opening titles to the closing shot, Ad Astra is packed with intense visuals that capture both the majesty and the terror of outer space. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who also shot Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, is in his element here. Long, sweeping shots capture spaceships carving through the starry skies, or McBride adrift in the dark. Another sequence features a battle on the moon, with rovers racing across the lunar landscape and bullets flying into faces. Though the entire sequence is silent, the audience will not be able to tear their eyes away from the screen.

Ad Astra

The highlight of the film, however, is Pitt’s performance as McBride. Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross spend the film delving deep into McBride’s mind and showing that he is far from the stoic soldier the world sees him as. Here is a man who took after a father he barely knew, and whose devotion to his job may have earned him countless accolades, but cost him his wife (Liv Tyler) and left him unable to connect with humanity.

Over the course of the movie, these barriers begin to break down and in the end, McBride learns to embrace his emotions. In comparison, his father is driven by a compulsive need to finish the mission he was sent on all those years ago, which led to him committing horrible acts.

Pitt is at the top of his game here, switching from a calm, with a measured focus at the beginning of the film to outrage, despondent, and grieving as he comes to grips with what he’s lost and the magnitude of his father’s actions. Gray favors close-ups of Pitt’s face, especially his eyes, to show all the emotions that his character McBride refuses to express. Pitt also narrates certain parts of the film and slowly peels back the layers of his character as time wears on.

Jones makes the most of his sporadic screentime, with his character’s obsession running parallel to his son’s stoic nature. He is intent on proving that life other than ours exists in the universe, and has driven everyone away, including his own family, in pursuit of that goal. This father/son relationship is the driving force of the film, and Gray underlines how both men’s emotional distance has shaped them, for better or worse.

Ad Astra

If there is one issue I had with the film, it’s that the supporting cast feels a bit underused. Donald Sutherland shows up as a military officer who knew McBride’s father, and Ruth Negga turns in a compelling performance as the head of the Martian base where McBride travels. I wish I could have seen more of them, as well as Tyler’s character; it would have served to give McBride some more tangible emotional connections outside of his relationship with his father.

Ad Astra is visually stunning as well as emotionally devastating, using the sci-fi genre as a backdrop to examine how humanity can often feel separated from each other and how important it is to connect with the people we love. It is one of the best films of the year. I highly recommend watching it, especially in IMAX.

Ad Astra is now playing in theaters.

Ad Astra
  • 10/10
    Rating - 10/10
10/10

TL;DR

Ad Astra is visually stunning as well as emotionally devastating, using the sci-fi genre as a backdrop to examine how humanity can often feel separated from each other and how important it is to connect with the people we love. It is one of the best films of the year. I highly recommend watching it, especially in IMAX.