Director James Gray heads to the sci-fi realm for the first time with Ad Astra, a genre departure for the filmmaker after a resume of more “grounded” films such as The Yards, We Own the Night, The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z.
Those aforementioned titles demonstrated Gray’s more pensive, measuredly paced style of filmmaking, working to craft character studies as opposed to delivering plot beats in exciting fashion. Knowledge of Gray’s past work is very helpful going in to this one; at the very least, it’s beneficial to enter Ad Astra knowing what type of film you’re about to see. This is not, as the marketing from Fox’s new parent Disney is so determined to convince droves of, a mainstream action-driven sci-fi blockbuster with Brad Pitt shooting it out with moon pirates (even though, yes, that does happen).
Set in a near future, the plot has Pitt playing Roy McBride, an astronaut that’s called upon to delve deep into space to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has long been thought dead and who is now potentially connected to certain events threatening the Earth and the universe.
I’m in two minds about Ad Astra. On the one hand, it is a confidently crafted and visually stunning slice of science fiction with impressive sequences and a strong lead performance; on the other, the tone is uneven and does become occasionally sluggish, Pitt’s character keeps the viewer at arm’s length for much of the duration, and the narrative ultimately doesn’t deliver anything all that original.
McBride is a character that feels layered, and Pitt’s magnetic screen presence serves him well, ensuring we’re often left studying this man’s face to uncover what secrets lie beneath the stoic demeanour. The character’s often obvious narration doesn’t help the film as much as it perhaps should, although it is important since it’s mostly what we have to go on given McBride’s bottled personality. Ad Astra is a character study with a sci-fi canvas, and when your lead character is a little too icy to warm to, and when his internal journey is ultimately quite familiar and straightforward, you’d be forgiven for being left a little underwhelmed by the time the credits roll.
As for the science fiction of it all, it’s also a bit of a mixed bag. There are some pretty interesting ideas put forth here and there, although some needed a little more fleshing out than others. The future is nicely presented in matter-of-fact fashion, without being too showy and showcasing technological and scientific developments as believable progressions of our current state. Other elements, such as the big threat itself or the future’s reliance on emotion-analysing tech, are used as compelling plot devices that are simply too glossed over to truly engross.
On a technical and visual level, the film is wonderful. The visual effects are seamless and some of the shots are so spectacular you could just pause and frame them. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema delivers more stunning interstellar work after, well, Interstellar. A big shout out to the sound team as well; the film’s aural intricacies are almost a character of their own.
There are a handful of action sequences, such as the aforementioned moon-set vehicular battle with pirates. There’s also a sequence involving a certain animal. While these moments are wonderfully crafted and do drive up the excitement, they don’t work too well as natural steps in the overall narrative. It’s as though they’ve been slotted in to give the film some mainstream appeal and some energetic beats to liven up McBride’s journey a little. Sometimes it feels like there’s a mainstream action sci-fi flick trying to get through in the background.
Some fine-tuning was perhaps needed to make the lead character a little more emotionally engaging and the script’s sudden bursts of action don’t quite gel, but Ad Astra is nevertheless a decent watch. It’s an engaging film that, while not working on every level as well as it should, should still be commended for what it does right as a measured psychological character study with a blockbuster sci-fi plot as its backdrop.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜†â˜†
‘Ad Astra’ opened in Australian cinemas on September 19 and US cinemas on September 20.