2001: A Space Odyssey had Jupiter. Interstellar gave us Saturn. Now, director James Gray brings us arguably the most spectacular big-screen treatment of Neptune to date (and since you’re already thinking it, insert your own joke here about when Uranus is coming to the big screen).
Ad Astra sees astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) attempt to contact, locate and dissuade his long-lost father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) from continuing his extra-terrestrial experiments on the far side of the blue gas giant, which are causing power surges that endanger humanity’s homes on Earth and across the Solar System.
The easy comparison, as is the case with any new space-fiction film, is to Stanley Kubrick’s star-hopping epic – as you may have noticed at the start of this very review. Surprisingly, however, the iconic sci-fi classic that Gray’s film more closely resembles is Blade Runner. Many a colour-drenched sequence seems plucked from the 2019 Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s cult favourite, and Pitt even delivers a voiceover reminiscent of certain versions of it (but we’ll get to that later). Moreover, just like Harrison Ford’s Deckard, Ad Astra follows one man on a journey down a road with many potential final destinations, with the quintessential isolation of the genre.
It’s a controlled and solitudal effort from both actor and character, reminiscent of Pitt’s younger tour-de-force work in Fight Club and 12 Monkeys. He is occasionally joined by a cast of dispatchers, at one point aided and abetted by an obviously battle-weary Ruth Negga. Given the equally-personal attachment her character, the Martian-born Helen Lantos, shares to the film’s central mission, a deeper exploration of her role would have been welcome.
Difficult to decipher is exactly to which niche Ad Astra appeals. Those expecting the accessible and hopeful work of Nolan may be disappointed, as too may those desiring the pure sci-fi cuts of Kubrick. The film lies somewhere in the middle – closer perhaps to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – and offers its high-octane thrills in a pair of sequences: one, an atmospheric tumble in the film’s opening and the other in an impressive second-act lunar shootout (yes, really).
Therein lies the roadblock that will perhaps prevent the film from joining the ranks of the all-time classic space fables that it so nearly reaches. A few choice, overwhelming vistas aside, there does seem to be a lack of any real breathtaking moment – even the two aforementioned set-pieces play out within the stiff, slow limitations that come with space exploration. The dialogue never really descends to jargon but does feature a cold, mission-ready dialect, and whilst that voiceover is more reflection than exposition, it does prevent the viewer from surrendering to the colossal beauty of galactic silence.
There is much more to appreciate than not, however. As the selling point, Brad Pitt shows once again that deserves recognition amongst his generation’s very best actors – though his Tarantino turn this summer is more likely to gain award nominations early next year. Cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema is as deliberate and accomplished as ever, blending his filmic techniques with the visual effects that add weight to the Roger Deakins argument that the two skills are becoming indistinguishable. Sonically, the film is a real treat, playing with the practicalities of sound in space to deliver the silence of a vacuum as capably as the scatter of radio communication.
This is a cautious film which probably requires either a longer runtime or multiple viewings to fully unfold. Its greatest and most unique success is in its depiction of the literal horrors of space travel; the unexpected (though sporadic) role of gore and death compliment the psychological minefield of long-distance solo journeying to provide the plentiful comparisons to Apocalypse Now this film has found.
Put simply, if you find the thoughtful, minimal contact of the space-fiction genre’s heavy hitters to be a benefit, then there is much here to feast upon. But if those things are detrimental to your viewing experience, then perhaps like the central McBride characters here, it may be wise to look elsewhere to discover your personal satisfaction.