James Gray’s Ad Astra offers a profusion of both spectacle and substance. This serious science fiction is to be treasured.
Astronaut Roy McBride is given a mission that takes him to the edge of the solar system. His father disappeared several years before, and McBride is tasked with attempting to send a message to him…
Directed and written by James Gray, with co-writer Ethan Gross, Ad Astra offers a high-concept premise with its central mission. Yet the narrative develops into something more complex and thought provoking as the film progresses. Part of the film’s beauty is that the plot seems predictable, but shifts on its audience in a most welcome manner.
Protagonist Roy McBride is finely crafted. He comes across as serious and controlled in his emotions. Whilst this may not sound like the most sympathetic of main characters, it absolutely works within the world of Ad Astra. Set in the near future, film has a strong sense of verisimilitude. The science fiction elements are not particularly fantastical; Gray grounds film in the plausible.
Ad Astra takes cues from older science fiction; and at times feels like a homage to the serious sci-if of the 1960s and 1970s. The influence of Tarkovsky’s Solaris can be felt both visually and thematically. With each new setting, the look is distinct. The Mars sequences in particular feel like they have been taken straight out of the 1970s, thanks to production designer Kevin Thompson’s highly stylised sets.
The themes that the film explores again harks back to earlier science fiction. Roy’s development explores the themes of drive, expectation, and isolation. Gray takes a deft touch in exploring these. The climax of the film conveys sincerity in its emotion. The spectre of Joseph Conrad looms, and the influence works exceptionally well.
There are some great set pieces in the film, offering thrills amongst the pensiveness. Sequence on the moon great, as is opening gambit. Gray and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema offer wonderful spectacle with their visualisation of various space environments. The sound design does a great job in adding to the ambience.
Brad Pitt offers a superb performance as Roy. The sombre nature of his character is conveyed in a most convincing manner, making way for a well-earned emotional pay off. Along with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt has delivered two of his best performances to date in the last few months. Support from Tommy Lee Jones and Ruth Negga is good, but Pitt really is the star of the show.
James Gray has delivered original, captivating science fiction with Ad Astra. Here’s hoping its success will lead to more fresh, big-budget, adult-orientated films.