Ad Astra review: 'Not the film you were expecting, but a bit of a masterpiece'
This is not the film you were expecting. Indeed, Ad Astra — a Latin expression, meaning “to the stars” — has, in some ways, been marketed as an explosive, sci-fi actioner, with a well-groomed Brad Pitt journeying to the stars, to save our planet.
Some of that is true. The Pitt man is, in fact, trying to save the world here. But he is doing so in such a calm and collected manner — stopping every now and then, to talk about his feelings — that you’d hardly notice that the fate of humanity was at stake. What we mean to say is that Ad Astra — an arty, textured space epic, with a brain, and a heart — has more in common with, say, Interstellar, than it does with Armageddon.
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Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t without its thrills. There is one beautifully co-ordinated chase sequence that demands to be experienced on the biggest screen you can find. But it’s also a film about a chap who travels to the other side of our solar system to find the father who never hugged him. And do you know what? I loved it. James Gray, the American auteur behind We Own the Night and The Lost City of Z, presents a sprawling, ambitious offering that, despite being entirely different from anything he’s ever made, falls in line with, well, everything he’s ever made.
There are father issues. There is a troubled, obsessive lead. Ad Astra features a bona fide movie star, but really, leans towards the art house. The usual Gray fare, basically. The difference is the setting. When Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an emotionally-stunted astronaut, whose marriage to Liv Tyler has all but stalled, learns that his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), may have the answers as to why the earth has been hit by devastating electrical pulses, the people in charge blast Roy out of the atmosphere.
His mission is simple: fly to Mars, use an underground base there to send a signal to daddy, and see what happens. Did we mention the fact that daddy is somewhere around Neptune? Yep, Clifford’s been floating in space for 30 years, as part of a project to find extra-terrestrial life outside of our galaxy. Elsewhere, Donald Sutherland is the old family pal, who might be keeping secrets, Irish star Ruth Negga adds to the philosophical fun as a Mars-based scientist and, yes, there are numerous twists and turns involved, none of which we’ll get into, obviously.
So far, so very conventional. The delivery is where things get interesting, with Gray adopting a chilling, almost poetic follow-through to proceedings. Pitt provides a voiceover throughout. Hoyte van Hoytema, the cinematographer who shot Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, reminds us of how small we really are.
Max Richter’s grandiose score reaches for the stars. Indeed, Gray’s ponderous space flick works harder than most. It takes its time, it digs deep, and it plays by its own rules. The result is one of the most beautiful, breath-taking pictures of the year. We are talking about a rich and rewarding slice of science fiction that, aside from treating its audience with both intelligence and respect, also features a leading man at the very top of his game.
I’ll admit, Gray’s script doesn’t always triumph in the physics department. If it paid half as much attention to the science bits, as it does to Pitt’s handsome face, Ad Astra would be a total knockout. Still, it comes spectacularly close, equipping itself with smart characters, strong dialogue and magnificently staged set pieces.
Gray’s film belongs to Pitt, a serious Hollywood player who is having a bit of a moment (remember, he was excellent in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood). Pitt has become the unlikeliest of major league character actors, and has never been as controlled, as focused and as unequivocally brilliant as he is here. This is his film. Again, it’s not the one you were expecting. But it’s better than that —it’s a bit of a masterpiece.