It’s common in fiction of any kind to use the fantastical to examine deeper and more common truths of humanity. Films like “Blade Runner” and “The Truman Show” have used elaborate and fanciful concepts to look at the simple concept of identity. “Ad Astra” is following in the footsteps of those films, using the concept of a not-to-distant future and space travel to examine some deeply human ideas.
Brad Pitt (“Fight Club,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) stars as Roy McBride, the lone spaceman traveling across the galaxy to find his long-lost father, played by Tommy Lee Jones (“Men in Black,” “No Country for Old Men”). Both Pitt and Jones are delivering career best performances here. While Jones is onscreen less than Pitt, the moments where he is there are captivating thanks to a deeply soulful and weathered delivery. There’s a loss and emptiness to his character that feels genuinely authentic and heartbreaking.
Pitt, meanwhile, is an absolute showstopper. While it's easy to throw criticism at the abundance of voice-over present in the film, it at least makes sense within the context of his extensive space travel solitude and the “psychology exams” the film brings up. Regardless, Pitt is delivering a stern and cold character whose life and character fundamentally changed over the two-hour run-time. It feels so authentic and real, as if you’re watching a documentary of a man whose core beliefs are being changed over the course of his life.
Apart from Pitt and Jones, the rest of the cast consists of roles so brief they may as well be cameos. There is an extended sequence on a space shuttle to Mars with some great smaller roles and chemistry between the supporting cast and Pitt, but it's over too quickly to really make an impact.
Ruth Negga (“Warcraft,” “Loving”) and Donald Sutherland (“Ordinary People,” “Animal House”) are the only supporting members present for long periods of time. Negga is as fantastic as she’s always been but is painfully underutilized here. Sutherland is a victim of the same fate, introduced with boatloads of character potential, but written out in a fairly understated manner.
The script, penned by director James Gray (“The Lost City of Z,” “We Own the Night”) and Ethan Gross (“Fringe”), manages to straddle the line of believability and wordy vocabulary extremely well. It never falls into the pitfalls of a film like “The Goldfinch,” instead settling into a neat spot of vocabulary heavy seriousness. The middle of the film is a bit strenuous, as that is when the pacing drags for a bit. But it's only really one scene that really feels out of place, a distress signal, and it at least has a purpose, even if it doesn’t seem entirely necessary.
However, where “Astra” truly shines is in the moment of quiet contemplation. This is an absolutely knock-out gorgeous film, without a doubt containing the best cinematography of the year so far, courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“her,” “Interstellar”). Some moments swell with incredible beauty and jaw-dropping vistas. When the seamless mix of practical and computer effects is coupled with that cinematography and the score from Lorne Balfe (“The Florida Project,” “The LEGO Batman Movie”) and Max Richter (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “The Leftovers”), it becomes a purely incredible achievement in atmosphere.
Thankfully, Gray and Pitt put that atmosphere to good use. This is not a toothless film, and despite the inky blackness of space, there is a lot to ruminate on after the credits start to roll. The concepts of home, as well as what a parent owes their children, are constantly dealt with throughout the surprisingly short 124-minute run-time.
It might very well be one of the most affecting films to ever touch upon the subjects of isolation and loneliness.
Despite these heady themes, it never feels like a downer either. There’s a warmth to “Ad Astra” that helps permeate through the seriousness of the subject matter to create a film that isn’t lighthearted by any means but feels remarkably human. It eschews the melancholy feelings from films like “Blade Runner 2049” or “Interstellar” and it creates a much more appealing film to the general populous as a result, without sacrificing the artistry.
It is worth noting that, even with its shorter than blockbuster length and consistent pacing, this a slow burn of a film, and therefore won’t be for everyone. Some moments just exist to showcase the mental state of the characters, and while they are satisfying in a story context, they might not be particularly entertaining for a general movie-going audience.
For those willing to see a slow burn film through, “Ad Astra” is masterclass in emotional authenticity and theme work. For a film about space, the authenticity and artistry of the atmosphere is undeniable. Lead by career best performances from Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones, this is a singularly wondrous piece of science-fiction, with only minor blemishes from underutilized supporting characters and a somewhat out of place sequence. It's at times thought provoking, thrilling, gorgeous, and insightful, sometimes all at once. Talk about shooting for the stars. 4.5/5