Ad Astra is a new take on a timeless story. In the near future, a skilled astronaut (Brad Pitt) must embark on a mission to the farthest planet in our solar system, Neptune, to destroy a malfunctioning space station commanded by his famous father. (Tommy Lee Jones)
The punctuated structure of the plot is parallel to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, which was in turn an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s exploratory anti-colonial novel Heart of Darkness, both stories where a man embarks upon an unknown path that becomes more lonely and treacherous with each stop. The result is a well-paced, bleak-yet-fantastical film superficially surrounding a journey in space, but truly focusing on a man’s descent into near madness and the bond between a father and son.
Ad Astra is not action packed, but that doesn’t mean it lacks intense, creative action scenes. Screenwriter and director James Grey tactfully plays with tension – you aren’t always sure the characters are in control, or what they’re capable of. The payoff is magnificent, and meshes perfectly with composer Max Richter’s subtle score.
The film is visually stunning – its lighting is no-holds-barred and in-your-face. It truly immerses the viewer in its world using its deeply contrasted tones. That, coupled with special effects, elevates Ad Astra to a whole new level of spectral cinematic beauty. The scenes around Neptune in particular highlight the desolate beauty of that environment with lighting coming only from the deep blue reflection of the planet.
However, the acting leaves something to be desired. Pitt’s character in particular (from whom the focus of the film never strays) does things, but he never seems to react. In fact, the main trait of Pitt’s character is that he stays calm even in the most stressful of situations. The writers of this film must have known this would make for a bland, hard-to-follow character arc, so they resorted to using ‘psychological assessment’ scenes, where characters mindlessly deliver all of their emotional baggage to a device that proceeds to tell them if they’re mentally stable or not. It feels like a cop-out, and it’s a great disappointment to see Pitt’s talents constrained to a deadpan delivery of all of his character’s thoughts.
All in all, despite its dramatic shortcomings, Ad Astra is definitely worth a watch, especially after it’s released for 4K screens, where its beauty can be fully recognized. It strikes many of the same thematic notes as Interstellar did, so fans of that film will likely enjoy this one.