Image Credit: Twentieth Century Fox
Pitched as Apocalypse Now meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, James Gray’s 'Ad Astra' is a visually stunning film which aims very high indeed, and for the most part succeeds.
When strange cosmic surges originating around Neptune threaten the Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent on a mission to investigate. Top secret intelligence reveals that his missing, presumed dead father (Tommy Lee Jones), who went on a mission to search for extraterrestrial life, may be responsible for the apparent attacks.
Roy journeys from the moon to Mars.
Thus begins a kind of science fiction Heart of Darkness type narrative, as Roy journeys from the moon (a colonised tourist trap) to Mars (mankind’s last outpost), and out into the great unknown. His journey into utter darkness is both literal and figurative, with years of suppressed abandonment and father issues surfacing the further into the void he travels.
Pitt is excellent, conveying the nuances of his deeply repressed character with considerable subtlety. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland turn up in interesting supporting roles, and Gray’s direction is suitably epic in a must-see-on-the-big-screen way. The opening sequence alone (involving a vast antenna reaching into space) is jaw-dropping, and there are many other awe-inspiring set pieces along the way.
Gray references to many other science fiction films.
As well as the aforementioned classics, Gray references 'Solaris', 'Moon', 'Interstellar', 'Gravity', and many other science fiction films.
I was even reminded of some of Terence Malick’s 'The Tree of Life' at times (the voiceover doesn’t just mirror 'Apocalypse Now'), and also 'First Man'. But 'Ad Astra' has enough going for it to stand on its own two feet as well, even if the climax feels a little too literal.
Other minor quibbles include inconsistent pacing, mainly due to the slightly peculiar mixture of action sequences and a more contemplative, cerebral tone.
You’ll find a lot to enjoy in 'Ad Astra'.
Still, it is never less than solidly entertaining, and often much more than that. If you’re a sucker for sci-fi, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in 'Ad Astra'.