AD ASTRA

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: James Gray

Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Loren Dean, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Sean Blakemore, John Ortiz, Natasha Lyonne.

In deep space no-one can hear you yawn!

Ad Astra (2019)

With this intelligent and stylish but ultimately dull sci-fi drama from writer/director James Gray (We Own The Night, etc) Brad Pitt finally gets the chance to join his fellow Ocean’s 11 co-stars George Clooney and Matt Damon by playing an astronaut and travelling into outer space.

The film is set in the near but distant future, where man has finally colonised the moon and is exploring the outer reaches of the galaxy. A strange power surge from outer space wreaks havoc on the earth, causing widespread blackouts and destruction. NASA trace the mysterious surge to a source somewhere near Neptune, and it seems related to Project Lima, a failed mission commanded by revered and decorated astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) which was searching for intelligent life in the universe. However, Clifford disappeared off the grid nearly thirty years earlier and has long been presumed dead.

Clifford’s son Roy McBride (Pitt) is also an astronaut and, given his relationship to the commander and his reputation for remaining cool under pressure, he is selected for the mission to venture to Neptune and try and re-establish contact with McBride and solve the problem of the surge and end the threat to the Earth.

Ad Astra is a more intelligent and realistic looking science fiction film that deals with some big ideas and themes, like the importance of human connection. But, it also shows us how the base nature of humankind will probably even ruin the colonisation of the moon, with corruption, crime, capitalism and corporate greed tainting the brave new frontier. But Ad Astra also has something of the tone of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness about it.

Visually the film is quite well done with some great production design and visual effects that recreate the eerie world of outer space and space travel and the lunar surface. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, a regular collaborator with Christopher Nolan and who shot Interstellar, etc, uses a bluish palette for much of the film, which lends the material a cold surface quality. His use of handheld cameras for the jerky opening sequences set atop a high communication antenna cribs from the playbook of Damien Chazelle, from the vertiginous opening scene of his First Man.

Gray is better known for his gritty dramas and seems a little lost with this space opera. His direction is deliberately paced and measured throughout. There are a couple of action sequences, including a lunar buggy chase across the moon’s surface to escape some pirates and a crazed monkey that wipes out a research craft, but these seem like afterthoughts added to beef up the material that lacks any real sense of urgency or energy. But for all its scope, this is still a fairly intimate journey of obsession and self-discovery that explores complex father/son relationships and the fragility of our place in the universe, and is also something of a psychological drama and character study.

Gray draws some good performances from his cast. Pitt brings a serious intensity and earnest quality to his introverted, understated and subtly nuanced performance as McBride, and gives us insights into the character’s troubled inner thoughts and mental processes, especially with his voice over narration. While playing Roy as aloof, distant and lacking empathy, he also brings a hint of vulnerability to the character. Jones, who last ventured into space alongside Clint Eastwood in 2000’s Space Cowboys, brings his usual laconic, taciturn and gruff presence to a small role, while Donald Sutherland (who was also in Space Cowboys) is also good in a small role as Pruitt, a cynical former colleague of Clifford’s. Liv Tyler (Armageddon, etc) is wasted in a small and thankless role as Roy’s estranged wife Eve.

Ad Astra is more akin to esoteric and cerebral films like Solaris, etc, than the broadly appealing, crowd pleasing space set blockbusters like Apollo 13, The Martian and Gravity. And for those wondering about the title, apparently ad astra comes from the Latin, and translates as “through hardship to the stars”.

★★★

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