Released: 19th September
Seen: 9th October
A space movie is always hard to get just right. The idea of someone floating around in the vastness of space? It’s a cool effect that’s hard to recreate on earth, and that’s before you worry about things like sound in the vacuum of space or just how potentially dangerous it is. The hardest part about big space movies is trying to find a good story using the location. When the location is the vast emptiness of space, that can really work well as a metaphor or just to create some danger. Gravity, as an example, is basically a film about someone lost at sea and could’ve told the exact same story on earth but they wanted to make it a space movie because it’s more visually interesting. That movie was also praised as the most realistic space movie of all time – and now a new contender has come to try and claim that crown. I don’t think it’s the most realistic ever, but it’s certainly got some of the best performances.
Ad Astra is set a few years in the future when space travel is so easy that you can fly commercial. Until a series of solar flares keep hitting the earth, causing a series of massive power outages and damage that could end all life on earth if someone doesn’t do something. That someone has to be Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut who was on a space station when a surge hit and almost killed him. Roy is told that the source of the flares is Neptune and a program called the Lima Project that was headed by Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). On Roy’s long trip to stop his father, he’s going to have to deal with the hostility of Space and the people who inhabit it, along with his personal feelings regarding his father and their relationships.
When we meet Roy we’re meeting a man who has spent his life trying desperately to learn how to squash his emotions. His heart rate never goes over 80, even in the most disastrous of situations. He’s notably calm and cut off at all times, something that eventually leads to him losing his wife (This is all explained clearly within the first few minutes so it’s only the tiniest of spoilers). It’s insanely hard to play an emotionless character compellingly but Brad Pitt found a way. His performance is what this film leans on more than anything and it’s so subdued and subtle, put him on the list of people destined for an Oscar nomination next year because the man is working on so many layers here. He may come across as emotionless at first glance but if you look closer you can see that he feels everything, it’s in his eyes and the power of Brad’s performance rests on his ability to just hold all the emotion at bay for the entire run of the film, only barely letting it peek through in little gestures and a tear that begs to fall, right up until the end when he finally lets everything go and shows the emotion he held back with such skill. It’s a subtle performance, but one of the most fascinating ones of the year which is fortunate because it’s the main thing carrying the film for two hours.
The film itself isn’t even about space, it’s entirely about a man coming to terms with his relationship with his father and how that’s shaped his life. It’s not subtle about it, they make it very clear that Roy is so withdrawn due to memories of his father’s angry outbursts. He became an astronaut because his father was one, we get to see these little glimpses of his relationship and how it’s affected him and it’s what drives the entire film. We even get little nods throughout the film to how that relationship has made Roy shut off. There’s a sequence where Roy and his crew get a distress call, it’s one of the tensest scenes in the movie and culminates in a particularly violent battle between Roy and an occupant of that ship. Seeing how Roy has basically trained himself not to react in the face of extreme violence tells you a disturbing amount about just what the relationship with his father was like. It’s what helps make the story work even though it has its slower moments, I know how shocking it must be to hear that a two-hour movie set in space can be a bit slow sometimes.
When the film does slow down, usually during moments where Roy is travelling between planets, it allows the spectacular visuals to sink in. The vast emptiness of space looks gorgeous and the scenes on Mars and near Neptune are stunning visual effects that are a treat to look at. There’s a lot of sequences that take place outside the ship and every one of them is a triumph, especially at the climax of the movie which is just perfect visual storytelling. This is one of those films where I could turn any frame into a poster that would be perfect to hang on a wall, it’s that good. I won’t be shocked when the cinematography of this film is showered with awards and praise when it comes to that time of year (which is in a few months, we’re already getting towards Oscar Bait season so get ready for that).
The film is lucky to have such amazing visuals because they help make the story problems easier to overlook. The entire film revolves around this relationship between Roy and his father, it’s where the film is going and what it’s exploring but it does so using this tool of the surges of power that could wipe out humanity. They never really do anything with that surge once we get to finally have the inevitable face to face moment with the father, it’s brushed aside as just something that’s happening by accident and it can be stopped relatively easily. Then there’s the actual time with the father which is maybe one or two scenes of talking but with barely any actual resolution. They don’t get a chance to address the problems that are brought up during the film, it’s just kind of dealt with in one dramatic moment of metaphor that’s so on the nose (and is a spoiler) that it puts a bitter taste in the mouth right at the ending. There’s also some clunky dialogue and moments when the ‘realism’ claim is pushed to its absolute limit.
For the most part though, Ad Astra is a great space movie that explores the subject of broken familial bonds interestingly. With a lead performance that carries the film so effortlessly that it’s almost shocking, let’s not be surprised when this film gets showered in nominations at awards time. It’s a genuinely great film, it just stumbles every now and then and relies on its lead actor to pick it up and brush it off before it can keep going.