James Gray’s newest film, “Ad Astra,” is a technical masterpiece starring Brad Pitt like you have never seen him before.
The gist of the movie is that its set in the near future and Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, is a calm and skilled astronaut following in his thought-to-be-dead father’s footsteps, a man who is said to be one of the best astronauts known to man. Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) abandoned Roy when he was a kid to set out on a dangerous mission to the edges of the solar system searching for extraterrestrial life.
When high-ranking military officials inform Roy that his father may not only be alive, but he may also be humanity’s biggest threat, Roy is dispatched to Mars to deliver his father a message. What follows is a journey of inner conflict and a series of chaotic mishaps as Roy seeks to find truths about himself and his father.
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While the film has come out to universal critical acclaim since its Sept. 20 release, it has also been met with some underwhelming reviews from fans, mostly on the basis that the movie is slow or boring.
These negative reviews stem from marketing that promised an action-packed, sci-fi, space adventure like Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” or Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Unfortunately, the trailers featured almost the full extent of the movie’s action scenes as well as some intriguing scenes that ultimately did not make the final cut.
If you go into the theater expecting “Ad Astra” to follow suit with previous space odysseys, like I did, you will likely leave frustrated and cheated. If you go into the movie understanding what to look for and analyze, you will find the beauty and mastery in “Ad Astra.”
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The movie has some big-time veteran actors in supporting roles like Jones and Donald Sutherland among others, but Pitt’s Roy McBride is far and away the movie’s biggest focus.
In the films two-hour, three minute runtime, Pitt is hardly away from the screen. With countless close-ups and consistent voice-over narration, the audience is put in the headspace of Roy, often being restricted to his knowledge and perceptions.
Roy is a deeply complex character. He is a dedicated astronaut so focused on his work, like his father, that he never made time to connect with other people on an emotional level.
Over the course of the film, we learn how obsessed Roy is with his father and how Clifford’s abandonment has made Roy a closed book. Every life choice and personal decision Roy makes comes back to his father. As we learn more about Roy and Clifford as the journey progresses, we see the striking and sometimes destructive parallels between father and son.
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Pitt takes his performance to the next level with rare and subtle nuance. He manages to make you feel the struggles going on within him with the slightest of facial expressions and a few revealing monologues. His ability to tell you more by saying less proves quite impressive, so it’s a little frustrating when a few of the voice-over narrations feel unnecessary.
If you watch the movie with the understanding that Roy is closed off to everything but the mission, including himself, you may realize that the series of seemingly misplaced misadventures and brushed-over deaths are just mere obstacles for Roy to get past. Many of the life or death moments along the journey do not seem to carry any emotional weight because they do not carry any emotional weight with Roy. The audience is only meant to feel what Roy feels, and Roy really only cares about the mission to find his father.
The film is about human connection, self-discovery, masculinity and the fact that you can spend a lifetime traveling all the way to the edges of the solar system searching to answer life’s biggest questions about the unknown, but it’s all for naught if you fail to make meaningful connections with others.
In addition to these deep underlying themes, on the surface, “Ad Astra” will dazzle you with groundbreaking visuals, set pieces and cinematography. Gray makes the most of his technical achievement, however, assuring that the visuals add to the emotional depth and storytelling.
While the script leaves something to be desired with a few awkward lines and abrupt out-of-character moments, part of it goes back to the lens with which you view this movie. If you look at it through Roy’s eyes, the comings and goings of other characters and what they say is meaningless to him in achieving his greater goal, so why should we care what they say or what happens to them.
The phrase “ad astra” is a Latin expression for “to the stars.”
“Ad Astra” will continue to play in theaters all over in the following months. While its lack of popularity with fans will likely limit the movie’s potential for the most popular major awards, look for “Ad Astra” to be a big player in all of the technical categories.