Film Corner with Njal Heddle: Ad Astra

FilmGravity: An Interstellar Odyssey.

In one of the plentiful musical sequences of celebrated absurdist comedy Toast Of London, the titular character croons the words; “When you’re in space, they can’t hear you fail.” In the last ten years, we’ve been gifted with now-seminal space-set brilliance such as Gravity and Interstellar, those two hewing closely to the grandaddy of the genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s become near guaranteed that if a film is set in space, it will be praised for its technical achievements fairly more than its plot, however minimalist or, to some, corny it sounds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all. If anything the setting of the big black yonder is rife for imaginative storytelling of any form. But, bar some examples, space equals acclaim. Ad Astra proves itself no exception to this role, but how does it stand on its own two feet without the aforementioned examples? Perhaps “fail” is far too strong a word. More, shortcomings.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) an astronaut tasked with helping the military find his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a fellow astronaut on a mission deep into the solar system to find intelligent alien life, whose work threatens life on earth.

Viewed in the context of sci-fi cinema as a whole, it’s hard not to see that Ad Astra borrows quite a lot, and borrows quite liberally. From Gravity there’s a survival story and ragdoll space-suit clad figures being flung about. From Interstellar there’s a venture into the unknown to find and help a relationship figure. And from 2001, there’s breathtaking visuals which truly make it a contender for the year’s most beautiful film, courtesy of Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema on (Inter)stellar form. There’s even a bit of Event Horizon towards the end. From this it’s hard to pin down exactly what director James Gray is going for. At times he seems to want to give over to a more poetic visual manner of storytelling, with long shots of planets among the stars, or rooms completely lit with orange on mars. But then he switches back to a more commercialised tone, with Pitt’s narration swooping in to enlighten the audience of what’s happening.

But viewed outwith the context of those (mostly) seminal examples, Ad Astra is a competently made, beautiful, introspective film. It’s easy to criticise many films for “stealing” from giants before it. But, honestly, who cares? There are right and wrong ways to emulate greatness, and with a film as passionate about what it is such as this, it feels like a tribute. It is to space-set sci-fi films what Skyfall was to the Bond franchise, though a bit more of a mishmash than that film was.

But what really sets it apart from its predecessors is Pitt. As McBride, Pitt portrays a man truly detached from everything around him, be it his wife, his colleagues, or even himself. He is a cold, calculating brick of a man in a voluntarily ostracised state. But when he has the chance to reconnect with his father from across the universe, his blank facade fades as he follows in his fathers footsteps in order to find him. But how far will he go? At first it seems like a slightly glummer run-of-the-mill Pitt performance, with Roy characterised as being handsome and monosyllabic. Probably for the best given some of the spoken dialogue (“I will deal with him. I will deal with my father.”) But as the film goes on, Pitt’s melancholy becomes ever more empathetic. His dad abandoned him as a child to go to space. Of course the poor bugger would be sad. It’s a take on the heroic main character barely seen before. Roy makes mistakes in the name of his determination, just as his father did, and how those take their toll on him is fascinating to watch.

Elsewhere, the rogues gallery of “Oh, it’s them” supporting cast all turn in fun little turns. Ruth Negga crops up to get sad on our asses with Pitt for a bit, while Jones proves an increasingly dark presence throughout the film, his shadow looming over Roy the closer he gets. Meanwhile, Natasha Lyonne crops up to sign people in, Liv Tyler walks around sadly for about two minutes of screen-time, and Donald Sutherland provides his trademark mysterious gravitas for the first third of the film.

For all its faults, be it poor dialogue or noticeably derivative plot-points, Ad Astra is a beautiful film anchored by a stunning visual style and a slow-burn performance from Pitt, and a truly dour look at the relationship between son and father. But it’s hard not to get the impression that the film doesn’t fully know what it wants to be; bankable sadness or meditative brilliance. If this is the first sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen, it’s not a bad place to start. Space itself is an odyssey, after all.


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