"Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world." - Jean-Luc Godard
Review: "Ad Astra"
Ad Astra is a film that I had missed when it was first released in September of last year, one that I had wanted to see but just never had the time or the opportunity to watch it. The film had mostly positive reviews from critics with the audience reaction being mixed to negative. I don’t usually let an audience reaction to a film dissuade me from seeing it myself, but with the film releasing in the fall and with me missing the chance to see it in a theater, by the time it was available to rent it was Oscar season and I was using my movie watching time hunting down as many of the big Oscar films as I could. So the other night I had just got home from a long day at work, and was unsure of what to do with my night when all of a sudden I had an idea: I was in the mood for a slow burn, thought provoking, science fiction film and for reasons I’m failing to remember, Ad Astra popped into my head. So I turned on my Playstation, turned down the lights, sat down with some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and boy was I in for a treat (and I’m not talking about the ice cream).
WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead. Nothing too serious, mostly things either in the trailer or within the first half hour of the film.
The film grabbed me right away, as Brad Pitt’s character, astronaut Roy McBride, climbs around on top of a giant space antenna that is struck by a mysterious power surge. As the station starts to explode and pieces of metal start falling all around him he is forced to jump off and deploy his parachute, hoping for the best. The sound mixing of the film and this scene in particular is something that stood out to me and also earned the film its single Oscar nomination; as parts of the antenna are blowing up and hurtling towards earth there are no huge explosions like we see in a Michael Bay movie. Everything is very controlled, and we witness it all from McBride’s perspective, feeling as if we also are in a spacesuit and holding on for dear life. After this incident, McBride is approached by the U.S. Space Command and is told that the surges are coming from the Lima Project, a base near Neptune, as far into space as humans have gone. The Lima Project was headed by McBride’s father, heavily decorated astronaut Clifford McBride, who had disappeared some 16 years earlier along with the rest of the crew of the project in their quest to contact alien life. With reasons to believe that his father is still alive, McBride agrees to undertake a mission to head to Mars and attempt to make contact with his father. What follows is a journey through the cosmos the likes of which I haven’t seen since Interstellar which, say what you will about the third act, is still a good film and a triumph of filmmaking.
The special effects utilized in this film are breathtaking. Every planet visited along the way feels completely real, completely tangible. As much as this should be credited to the VFX artists behind the film I think just as much credit can go to director James Gray. Part of what makes the planets feel so real is the lack of novelty; There is no “Wow, I’m the first man on Mars.” moment. The characters in this film treat it as a normal part of life. This directorial choice to not linger on the marvels of outer space and instead focus on the main character and his personal journey are part of what make the film more believable for me, even with a Mad Max: Fury Road-esque space pirate chase. However what works for me doesn’t work for everyone and this brings up some of the film’s main criticisms. The film was criticised for not showing the vastness of space or realistically depicting just how long space travel takes. This didn’t bother me for several reasons however, one being that the film is set in the near future and the Moon along with Mars have been at least partially colonized by humans so interplanetary travel is not quite as big of a hullabaloo as it is in our current world. As I mentioned earlier the film doesn’t waste time on the spectacle of space - we see what McBride sees as he sees it. He’s a seasoned astronaut, this isn’t new to him and the film treats us in the same way. As our protagonist arrives on the Moon for the first time we see that the spot has been turned into little more than a tourist attraction. We are greeted by a giant shopping mall full of hundreds of people, buzzing like a beehive. Indeed even as humans have moved past Earth the marks of civilization follow.
An element of the film that surprisingly worked was the voiceover. Brad Pitt narrates his character’s thoughts at various points throughout, but rather than telling us what we can very obviously see it gives us a look inside his head. So often films that use voiceover or narration rely on it too much and use it to tell us something that we can very easily see for ourselves if the camera and director allow it. When in doubt films should always show and not tell, but I think the narration in this film works with the character considering it’s always from his point of view. Thinking back I don’t think there’s a single scene in which Pitt’s character doesn’t exist. This is a personal journey of discovery for him. He hasn’t seen his dad in over 26 years, everyone around him tells him about how great of a man his father is and because of this he has put his father on a pedestal. As much as he is taking on this mission to contact the Lima Project he is going out of his own curiosity. He has to know if his father is as great a man as everyone says he is.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed Ad Astra and I hope I’ve convinced you to take a couple of hours out of your day or night and check it out. It’s not a fast-paced film, but it’s fascinating following this character and seeing what he encounters on his voyage through space. The visual effects and sound are really out of this world (ha!) and as a whole the film feels almost, dare I say it, Tarkovsky-esque. With that hot take I’m out. Thanks for reading!