As the final frontier of human exploration, space has been a classic backdrop for a variety of films over the years. From the early days of limited sets to the modern era of CGI, leaving earth has been a popular choice for many directors. While some filmmakers have concentrated their stories on the science fiction elements of the future, others have taken a character-first approach. Emphasising an intimate narrative within a massive scale, Ad Astra is an enthralling new release that refreshingly avoids unnecessary spectacle in order to focus its attention on a man’s personal journey.
The movie follows Roy McBride, a seasoned astronaut that must embark on a dangerous mission in search of his missing father, as he faces his own psychological battles along the way. Tommy Lee Jones portrays the aforementioned parental figure, with Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler and Ruth Negga in supporting roles.
As this is a film led by a movie star and marketed like a blockbuster, audiences might have expected an action-filled adventure. What we have here is, in fact, quite the opposite. While there are a few moments that attempt to inject some thrilling conflict, these are by far the weakest sections of the film. Thankfully, these moments are small in the grand scheme of this private tale.
When you look at the entire picture, this is a story about how an absent father can negatively influence a son’s whole life. Furthermore, it is about how men internalise their emotions, rationalising their actions with traditional masculine thought. Roy McBride is someone with a controlled facade, hiding the ongoing struggle happening within. Delivered alongside a consistent internal monologue, this is a film that rewards those looking for an emotional character study.
In truth, this did not need to be a science fiction movie. The DNA of the narrative is primarily rooted in the protagonist and their psychology. Instead of travelling across the solar system, a road trip through America could have been just as effective because of the well-built script. Moreover, the performance that Brad Pitt gives us is completely honest and powerful, constructing a strong foundation to support everything above it.
While this is a fantastic film, there are still some flaws to be found. As mentioned, the handful of action set pieces are indeed the weakest sequences. They are sparse but do break up the pacing a little when they arrive. Also, some of the metaphorical moments have a touch of heavy-handedness. They are not overly distracting but will leave you wishing for a little more subtlety.
Overall, the directing by James Gray and the script he wrote with Ethan Gross are the robust throughlines that allow all the technical aspects to flourish. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema once again proves why he is one of the best in the business. These gorgeous visuals are wonderfully accompanied by the great score that Max Richter provides, creating a mesmerising experience for viewers.
At its core, Ad Astra is a big budget film imbued with indie sensibilities. It is unfortunate that some will find this story to be boring as its quiet nature is by far its biggest strength. A slow burn journey that prefers to avoid spectacle in favour of emotional insight, this is a cinematic release that should not be missed.