Director James Gray, who has made a name for himself with his grounded, New York-set dramas, reaches for the skies in Ad Astra, his Brad Pitt-leading Magnus Opus. He takes the run-of-the-mill space exploration movie and infuses enough creative and authorial expressivity to place it on the podium among science fiction’s most artistic triumphs. 

Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, son to astronaut legend Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones),  a pioneer of searching the universe for intelligent life. Abandoning his family in this pursuit, Clifford goes missing and is presumed dead. Yet when a number of mysterious power surges reverberate throughout the universe, promising the destruction of life on Earth, astronaut Roy must follow his father’s footsteps to uncover the truths of his involvement in this impending catastrophe.

The most profound science-fiction films are those which use speculative ideas as a lens to examine the human condition, a way of imagining the unknown to reflect human nature. In Ad Astra, this reflection of humanity circulates around the human desire to look at the stars for hope, but only to find conflict. Pitt’s character looks to the stars to unravel the hidden mystery surrounding his father’s disappearance, to reconnect a fractured father/son dynamic separated not only by the stars between them but also by a dysfunctional relationship. There are glaring similarities to Apocalypse Now with this search of an enigmatic, infamous leader; the backdrop of the unforgiving forest being replaced by an expedition venturing into the abyssal unknown. Through this search, we are guided along with McBride’s frequent non-diegetic ramblings that allow us to enter his tormented psyche, although the continuous need for Gray to use this device as a means to exposit many of key contextual past experiences of Pitt’s character does feel like an overload of philosophical pondering. Yet this is the most psychologically-defined role we have seen from Pitt, who provides an evocation of internalised trauma through the crevices of his hardened persona. It is a psychical performance, yet there is a great deal of subtlety to Pitt’s juggling act of handling this internalised grief with his character’s desire to unravel the secrets of his father’s true nature. 2019 has been a good year for Mr. Brad Pitt.

Like any other space exploration flick, the depiction of space is just as paramount as those who inhabit it. Gray’s collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also lent his vision of space to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar) has conjured an image of our universe that is defined by both dread and beauty. Minuscule silhouettes float in the enormity of space, the sheer scale of it all resulting in existential angst. We are just specks in this universe, meaningless and devoid of true purpose. When the visual prowess of cinema can make you feel this way, you can only tip your proverbial hat to the power of images and atmosphere, and in this case, to Van Hoytema’s staggering depiction of the galaxy above us. Ad Astra’s cinematic exploration of space also leans equally as heavy on the power of sound, with Max Richter’s swooning, melancholic notes guiding us along through this psychedelic journey across Gray’s space odyssey. Credit must also be paid to the incredible work of the sound department, who add to Gray’s heightened atmosphere by creating audible danger in the most banal of circumstances. Much like in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, the absence of sound is just as profound as the explosiveness of it, and Ad Astra recognises the importance of creating a claustrophobic audible representation of an ultimately lonely and unforgiving universe.

Ad Astra, through its inherent intelligence and cerebral nature, might not cater to a mainstream audience. It’s a slow burner, favouring a sedately-paced 121-minute runtime to explore the fragility of the human condition, but that is not to say it lacks entertainment. There are a handful of truly exhilarating set-pieces set against the backdrop of planet-to-planet travel, filled with moments of true horror and simultaneous exuberance. Gray’s odyssey is a member of a rare coterie of intellectual science-fiction movies that exist to challenge the parameters of the genre it finds itself in; to be intelligent and also offer spectacle. It may not be for everyone, but by God is it an experience to remember.

My Rating: ★★★★★

Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland

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