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Ad Astra

The human being is a naturally social animal, needing interaction from others in order to stay sane and alive. It is fascinating, as the age of space exploration has developed, how films and art have sought to explore the vacuum of man’s natural environment. Interstellar (2014) had a small scene in which a tape-recorder with sounds of nature is used to keep astronomers from succumbing to the dread and silence of space. To explore the costs of being completely isolated in such an empty environment, and what such conditions can do to the mind, is an intrigue of James Gray’s new Ad Astra (2019).

Ad Astra is space drama following astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt). When working on the International Space Antenna, McBride nearly tumults to his death due to an electro-power surge from outer space. When debriefed on his accident, he is secretly tasked with helping out with the matter. The US military believes that McBride’s famed astronaut father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) is causing the surges from Neptune, where his ship and project, attempting to contact alien life, had long lost communication and were believed to be dead. McBride is to go to a military base on Mars to send a message to his father, demanding either explanations or an end to such devastating power surges.

James Gray has shown an adeptness for taking paused and detailed looks at reserved characters. His two most recent films explore such restrained people in dire situations with a Polish immigrant in early 20th century New York in The Immigrant (2013) and with a British Amazonian explorer in the 1920s in The Lost City of Z(2016). Given a large budget, Gray has turned his focus of pressured withdrawn heroes to space, placing a very capable Brad Pitt into his protagonist’s shoes. The exploration and deterioration of McBride as he ventures further into an emotionally and mentally vulnerable place is done with a trickle effect and patience that would remind one of Kubrick.

Hoyte Van Hoytema brings about a stunning visual representation of space, playing with the color of the planets along with the reflections of the astronauts’ visors. The sound design was of note too. Unlike many sci-fi epics that feature battles and explosions in space, there seemed to be quite a scientific care to be accurate, and thus any collisions or a stunning pursuit on the surface of the moon are done to near silence, with only muffled reactions indicating certain action. Such a sound design proved to be a contrast to the loud conflicts we are accustomed to seeing in Hollywood’s space as much as on screens in general.

However, Ad Astra seems to be struggling with it story and script. The first half of the film holds up thanks to tensely directed situations as well as the original concept of commercial space travel. However, as the story progresses, one gets the feeling that the narrative begins to slip from the filmmakers’ grasp. More and more Gray defaults certain narrative arcs into vagueness, and the character interaction became much sloppier and full of unfiltered exposition. The editing itself seemed to feel indecisive. Certain characters disappear mid-way through the film, others seem to pop-up intermittently at random junctures, only to have no impact on the story or conclusion. On the other hand there were many dragged out tangential sequences that seemed to have no significant weight on the core of the story, thus rendering them rather pointless. The film ends with such tacky and overused lines and themes, that it seems to have been hastily cut and pasted before being shipped to theaters.

The overarching feeling is that a script and concept seem half-way mapped and were suddenly rushed into production. This leaves such a contrast between a solid first half and a descending and scattered finale. One can also conclude, with a trailer to film comparison, that many scenes were cut. Liv Tyler, who plays Brad Pitt’s wife, has more screen time and dialogue in the trailer than in the entire film. Her cut scenes retract much emotional weight and background on McBride – despite themes of the film’s finale pointing towards a significant importance to their relationship. The same can be said for Donald Sutherland, who plays a veteran astronaut accompanying McBride on his trip. Sutherland’s character is set up to be a key emotional connection between McBride and his father, but after two or three scenes he is hastily cast aside and forgotten altogether; by the end of the film he has absolutely no impact on the story at all. The film was known to have production trouble, and extensive reshoots were done, but there remains an inconclusiveness whose blame is hard to pin down.

In the end, Ad Astra is fascinating for its concept and starts out with much promise. Pitt’s quiet performance helps anchor viewers, and the visuals and sound design alone are first rate. However, the narrative and intellectual aspects feel unfinished and sloppy, bringing down a notable effort that could have been so much more.



About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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