AD ASTRA (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW
Directed by: James Gray
Produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler etc.
Music: Max Richter
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There’s a moment toward the end when Brad Pitt’s intrepid astronaut, Roy McBride, is floating in space, and he asks himself (via a voice-over), should I carry on? Is there any point? In the vastness of space, nearing the endgame of an epic mission full of danger, he asks himself if it is worth, existentially speaking, continuing. It’s a central theme to the whole film and perfectly encapsulates McBride’s character. Externally he is heroic, however, internally he is perpetually questioning whether life is worth living. I often find myself doing this, but not in space. It’s usually when my alarm goes off in the morning and I have to go to work.
But McBride is not pathetic like me. I cannot even get on a plane for fear of crashing. He is on a mission to save Earth. Because, in the near future, catastrophic destruction is threatening us. Thus, he is given the task of venturing to Neptune, via Mars and experience all manner of space obstacles in order to track down the person or persons who may have caused the beginning of the end. This individual is alleged to be his father, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. So begins McBride’s very personal journey to the stars; to the heart of the darkest space.
A while ago I wrote an article about Hollywood making unofficial “remakes” as part of their film output – you can read the article here. Essentially, I proposed that in amidst their sequel, prequels, adaptations and superhero movie releases, you will get original screenplays and content too. However, sometimes these original ideas are thinly veiled carbon copies of ideas and structures from other films or literary sources.
For example, Star Wars (1977) used The Hidden Fortress (1958) structure and characters as an original starting point. Likewise, James Gray’s stunningly crafted science-fiction drama. Ad Astra (2019) is clearly using Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), as, not just influences, but total structural replication.
This in no way effected my enjoyment of this enthralling epic. What did happen though is that the story structure felt very familiar. The narrative unfolds in a staccato style with elegantly shot space transportation sequences and McBride’s psyche testing stops, spiked with bursts of action, fighting and surprising twists. When Clifford finally reaches Kurtz, I mean his father, his character and the audience have experienced some truly thrilling and visually spectacular moments. We also experience the psychological and philosophical musings of McBride. But, arguably these are nowhere near as poetic as Martin Sheen’s voice-over from the Coppola war classic.
In most scenes the visuals steal the show. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and production design creates a hive of imagery which, amidst the darkness, bursts with colour and light. I genuinely, especially on Mars, felt like I was in a moving art installation. Having said that, Brad Pitt’s subtle but emotional performance and Max Richter’s sumptuous score also enhance the emotional pull of the story. Pitt, I expect to win a Best Supporting Oscar as Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), but he could also get a Best Actor nomination here.
James Gray directs with a deft and “less is more” hand throughout. While the production itself looks epic, the psychology of the film is one of introspection. His themes of obsession, journey and existentialism drew me in the way they did in his last film, The Lost City of Z (2016). Ultimately, although the film’s screenplay could have ironed out some thin characterisations and plot inconsistencies, Gray demonstrates that the very existence of his films certainly make life worth living.