Film review: 'Ad Astra' is a sobering but stunning sci-fi film

For all its introspective musings, director James Gray allows Ad Astra, on occasion, to float into moments of sheer breathless terror

Brad Pitt stars in James Gray's 'Ad Astra'.
Brad Pitt stars in James Gray's 'Ad Astra'.

Brad Pitt has already enjoyed an impressive summer. His role as freewheeling stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was like a ray of 1960s sunshine and he has returned with Ad Astra, a sobering but stunning sci-fi movie from director James Gray, who has long been one of the most underrated filmmakers in Hollywood.

For both Pitt and Gray, this is a triumphant collaboration – their first together. Replete with the sort of visually astounding spectacle you’d expect from a big-budget American movie, it’s also ­deeply philosophical, examining identity, masculinity, the sins of the father and man’s overwhelming desire to conquer.

Set in the near future, Pitt plays Roy McBride, a highly capable, cool-under-pressure astronaut. His father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was a scientist and explorer, too, whose work led him to leave Earth years earlier to head to Neptune, and the farthest reaches of the Solar System, to seek out alien life.

While McBride’s father is long since thought dead, a series of dangerous cosmic rays hitting the Earth throw new light on his existence. McBride is given a top-secret mission: head to Mars, the furthest human outpost, to transmit a message to his father, in the hope of establishing contact with him.

For the first leg of the journey he travels to the Moon incognito via a Virgin flight. While it would seem Richard Branson’s dream of space travel is to come true, Gray’s vision is depressingly familiar; lunar tourism has become commercialised, with T-shirt vendors at every turn. McBride is even charged $125 (Dh459) for a “blanket-and-pillow” pack on his travels, in one of the more amusing asides.

While there is an optimistic feel in the film’s title – it is Latin for “to the stars” – the reality is somewhat different. On the Moon, in a thrilling chase, McBride is almost cut down by scavenger pirates in buggies in one of several brilliant sequences constructed by Gray and his visual effects team that truly take into account the physics of movement in space.

By the time he joins a government-operated rocket to Mars, his mission still under wraps, there are even more shocks in store, not least when the crew react to a distress call in deep space. For all its introspective musings, Gray allows Ad Astra, on occasion, float into moments of sheer breathless terror.

With its voice-over and journey into the heart of darkness, there are elements that make it sound like Apocalypse Now in space. “I don’t know if I hope to find him or finally be free of him,” says McBride of his father, in what feels like an echo of Martin Sheen’s search for Marlon Brando’s Col Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam saga.

Gray’s film isn’t quite as astounding as Coppola’s – few are – but he similarly explores the idea of the mythic journey. The closest Ad Astra comes to recent Hollywood sci-fi is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – with which it shares cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema – and Alfonso Cuaron’s spellbinding Gravity.

Undoubtedly, some people will talk about the female portrayals in the movie – Ruth Negga’s Mars-based operative, who has her own connection to the project McBride’s father led, and Liv Tyler, who plays McBride’s wife, projected more in his mind as a fantasy than anything else. True, they could be more functional as characters, but the point is we’re seeing this entirely from McBride’s increasingly warped view.

In virtually every frame, Pitt commands the screen. Leading to a trip every bit as captivating as the one seen in Gray’s 2016 Amazon drama The Lost City of Z, he’s never created a more complex character. It’s a bold, beautiful performance, like the film around him.

Updated: September 20, 2019 04:39 AM


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