Review: AD ASTRA A Feast Of Light, Sound, And Empathy In Outer Space
In the not too distant future the Earth is in dire straits. Massive pulses of energy originating from the edge of the galaxy have begun to put Earth's survivability in question, and the only person who can possibly do something about it is fearless astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt). Famed for being able to remain calm under the most stressful conditions - his pulse rate has never moved above 80 - McBride is uniquely qualified to track down and disable the source of this disturbance, but in order to do that he must not only trek to the furthest reaches that man has ever attained, but also face plenty of unfinished business of his own by confronting a father who abandoned him for the glory of discovery decades earlier.
The trek will be long and arduous, and not without more than its fair share of surprises, but McBride's determination and refusal to fail in any endeavor means that no matter the obstacles, he's up to the task. Or so he thinks.
Writer/director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) and his co-writer Ethan Gross have crafted a magnificently profound meditation in Ad Astra, not only on the nature of humanity, but also the father-son bond, and the hubris of man, all the while both celebrating and critiquing our species' inherent drive to conquer worlds beyond our own. With Brad Pitt representing the very best of us - fearless, intrepid, determined - Ad Astra holds a mirror up to mankind (the use of "man" in this case, very much intentional) to show us that even our heroes have flaws.
While the film boasts an impressive cast of supporting characters, it is Pitt's journey on which Ad Astra is laser focused. In fact, the film's focus on Pitt mirrors his own character's trek through space. With each stop on the way to the edge of the galaxy (first the moon, then Mars, then to regions beyond), Roy McBride faces new challenges and surprises. He's met on this top secret mission by numerous friends, foes, and unwitting tagalongs, all of whom serve as mere launching pads toward his next task/obstacle. Each new challenge tests his steel, whether it is a diplomatic kerfuffle or a violent attack in deep space by escaped lab animals, McBride must and does remain calm. But can a man truly remain that calm and compartmentalize the kind of anxiety and rage he must be harboring without giving up a bit of his own humanity?
Shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who also worked on Christopher Nolan's space odyssey, Interstellar, Ad Astra attempt to recreate the vastness of space on screen. It is a marvelous looking film, looking at the screen is often like peering into the deepest, blackest pool and seeing the stars within. Inspired in no small part by the trailblazing visuals of 2001, Ad Astra updates our vision of space with the help of new technology, making it one of the most bountiful visual feats of the year. Similar, Max Richter's (Wadjda) score evokes that same spirit of discovery and the infinite unknown of space through pulsing synths, also harkening back to the late '60s and '70s science fiction boom.
Paced deliberately and running just a hair over two hours, Ad Astra manages its run time very effectively, building a believable future and illustrating its trappings and advancements in detail. While there is plenty of whiz-bang tech in Ad Astra, none of it ever detracts from the fact that this is a human story, and not only one about the survival of the race, but also one about the most intimate of interpersonal connections, that of the parent and child. It reflects our own trauma back at us, it helps us to paint a nuanced picture of our own successes and failings and reminds us that for every heroic deed, there must necessarily be a victim somewhere in pain. This is the story of that victim taking back his power and regaining the control over his own life, and incidentally the lives of everyone else in the galaxy.
While some might feel it to be overwrought - there is no dearth of melodrama, to be sure - for me, Ad Astra accomplished its goals. It made me feel, it reminded me of times in my life when I've had to tread through what seemed like eons in the wilderness to find a solution to a deteriorating situation, and ultimately realizing that sometimes the only way to succeed is to let go. That's the best way to experience Ad Astra, let it wash over you, allow its masterful use of light and sound to enhance an already incredible piece of writing and a tremendous performance from Pitt. Ad Astra may not quite be 2001, but it's certainly more approachable with themes more clearly delineated and executed, and that's okay by me.