Quite frankly, there haven’t been a lot of films I’ve marked the calendar for this year. Not to say nothing has gotten me into the theater but there has been an unfortunate and glaring a lack of captivating cinema…at least for my money. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy movies solely on a superficial level but I’ve been doing that basically all year already and it’s time for a change. Bold ideas that are grand and ambitious are hard to come by in modern cinema and, unfortunately, 2019 has been a hard lesson in that reality. Thankfully, a change of season looks to shift the paradigm. I get the feeling Ad Astra is going to be divisive but, in many ways, it’s a beautifully self-contained masterpiece and a quintessential work of modern Science Fiction.
The strength of this film begins with Director James Gray and the screenplay he wrote with Ethan Gross. This is a deliciously cerebral and introspective story told through a particular character study. Gray has a penchant for thoughtful cinema and adding Gross to the mix helped fine-tune the Sci-Fi backdrop. It’s certainly a slow burn, and a lot of people aren’t going to like that, but I don’t intend that as a negative. This is the kind of film that has me thinking the entire time, not necessarily about the mystery to be uncovered but about the entire scope of the near future. It’s listed as adventure/mystery/drama for whatever reason (likely marketing purposes) but, if you read between the lines, this is quite clearly a Sci-Fi thriller. Focusing heavily on humankind’s place in the universe while raising moral questions about how we utilize technology to achieve our goals is about as Sci-Fi as it gets. A cursory analysis from some may draw comparisons to movies like Interstellar or Gravity but I would argue Gattaca and Moon are much more accurate contemporaries. I would have to think Gray and Gross are near the top of the heap for Best Original Screenplay and Gray may get a nod for Best Director as well.
The man at the center of that character study is Major Roy McBride, played marvelously by Brad Pitt. This was a highly contemplative and reflective role and, beyond all the window dressing, it’s the story of a man who went from desperately seeking his father’s (Tommy Lee Jones) approval as a boy to chasing his legacy as a man. The accompanying psychological burden is well framed in this context, showing how the trickle-down effect leaked into every aspect of Roy’s life. This was a much different role than some of the more notorious charismatic characters we have seen from Pitt throughout his career, even as recently as this year in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, but he’s as commanding as ever. Through quiet intensity and subtle narrative approaches, he made this character his own and wore the emotional scars with stoic resolve. I can certainly envision an Oscar push for this role as Pitt was certainly the gravitational core of this film but his performance was wonderfully framed by elegant and vivid visuals.
Kevin Thompson’s production design was exceptional. It’s truly some of the best off-planet design work ever put on film and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema had a fantastic understanding of how to present it all without self-aggrandizement. The approach is both grandiose and simultaneously minimalist. This vision of the not-too-distant future is grounded by highly focused realism which made everything far more tangible. With as gorgeous as this film looks, it would have been very easy to fall in love with the presentation and forget the narrative direction. The use of intense hard light and close-ups helped to refocus the story and balance the human element in the face of the vast expanse of space. It was a very ambitious approach but it came together in an intricate and delicate dance.
The other crucial visual element was the set design by Karen O’Hara who brought a very distinct visual style to the table. There was plenty of high-tech equipment on display throughout the voyages but when the story is grounded there’s an almost ancient feel to the sets, reminiscent of the Blade Runner films. The juxtapositioning was sharp and framed human life as something of a relic from a bygone era, even though the story wasn’t taking place on that timeline. It was more of subtle foreshadowing but it certainly stood out in my recollection. I fully expect O’Hara along with Thompson and Van Hoytema to be in line for Oscar nominations.
For a film that is fairly cold and focuses on the emotional compartmentalization of its main character, Max Richter’s original music was incredibly warm. With additional music from Nils Frahm, Sven Faulconer, and Robert Charles Mann, the score is full of hope and ambition that fueled the narrative push. Given the scope of the story, it was important for the music to keep the audience dialed in on the emotional timbre of the character.
It’s always nice when a film you’ve been looking forward to doesn’t disappoint. Sure, there are some moments that really test your disbelief and Liv Tyler is almost completely pointless but those moments are few and far between. Ad Astra is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and the fact it was outpaced at the Thursday box office 2-to-1 by Downton Abbey and also beaten out by Rambo: Last Blood doesn’t bode well for its financial future. However, I loved it and would gladly see it again.
Recommendation: If you like thoughtful and intellectual Sci-Fi movies then this is just what the doctor ordered. If not, you’re probably better off watching a 73-year-old Rambo savagely kill a whole bunch of people.