Watch this as soon as you can…
Ad Astra needs to be seen in the cinema. The score and special effects demand it. Even if you do not get round to watching it where it was meant to be seen, there is still plenty to enjoy. James Gray’s space thriller is a character study with an excellent performance from Brad Pitt. The story is as much about his own introspection as it is about exploring the frontiers of space.
Apparently some shots use real photographs of the surface of the moon, but you will not be able to differentiate them from the fake ones. The special effects are convincing. The vast odyssey through space is at its most beautiful and stunning in Ad Astra. Some of the most delightful shots are of the planets as Roy (Brad Pitt) floats past. The planets are fully realised and dwarfing; the cinematography does an outstanding job of reminding us just how small we are in comparison to the gorgeous but intimidatingly expansive void of space. Not for one second are you allowed to believe any of this is inauthentic. The special effects really do justice to the grand ambitions of the film.
This is ironic given that the film is not really about space at all. The quest to Neptune to stop the anti-matter surges threatening life on Earth is just a reason for NASA to get the mission started and the rocket soaring. Once the set up is complete, the film is really about Roy and his relationship with his father (Tommy Lee Jones). There is a Heart of Darkness like quality to the narrative as the journey further into space is more of a journey into Roy’s soul as he succumbs to depression and a withering sense of loneliness. Fortunately, Brad Pitt was cast in this film, who works wonders to ensure this nearly one man film works. Every subtle facial twitch and the sombre pessimism in his narration really convince you that this is a man being destroyed by the black hole of depression. His own sense of inadequacy and alienation are overwhelming him, and Pitt does an excellent job conveying this in his portrayal of Roy. The editing allows for the seamless transition between close ups of Roy’s wearying face and the expanses of the solar system, constantly reminding us that both Roy is undertaking two parallel journeys into himself and into space. Despite spanning the whole of the solar system, the film is about Roy’s introspection and meditation of his life, and Pitt is more than up to the job of carrying this film more or less by himself.
The only thing letting this film down is the pacing. Every exciting piece of action seems to happen in the first two acts. Damn they are exciting though. The moon buggy choice deliberately echoes a wild-west horse chase, as history has rhymed again, and the moon has become the new frontier. The disorientating opening sequence is thrilling to watch, having the gravitational pull to sweep you into the movie’s narrative. The encounter with the research primate is startling and brutal. Critics who have described this film as slow can only be referring to the third act, where the narrative begins to drift rather than drive forward.
One thing that does not slow down, along with Pitt’s powerful performance, is the score. It is delightful and overwhelming. Max Richter has created a score that is haunting, full of emotion, while also elevating the gravity of the situation. As Roy’s isolation increases, and we get further into space, the score proportionally gets more and more impactful. The one criticism that can be thrown at the impeccable score is that it does not surprise. Think back to any space movie, and the score will likely sound familiar. Nevertheless, this style of music is not broke, and Richter did not need to fix it. It remains a pleasure to listen, even if it does not feel particularly new.
Go see this movie at the cinema. For the price of cinema ticket, you are really getting two journeys for the price of one. One journey into Roy’s lonely and crushed soul, and another into the impeccably realised darkness of the outer solar system. With a score and special effects this good, you really a screen big enough to convey its grand scope.