Sat. Aug 15th, 2020

Review: ‘Ad Astra’ is a profound examination of the question of one’s own existence

AD ASTRA (Photo: Francois Duhamel / 20th Century Fox)

Brad Pitt Ventures into Space in James Gray’s Beautifully Intimate Astronaut Drama

Ad Astra is a strange case of a film. By all accounts, this should be another fantastic addition to the increasingly prominent sub-genre of intelligent science fiction, which tends to find the perfect balance between adventure and philosophy in how it explores the seemingly boundless limits of the human mind and our relationship with technology and the world around it. It also comes from the mind of James Gray, a filmmaker who has an almost perfect track record when it comes to his previous films, all of which were excellent in their own way. Everything about this film pointed towards it being a masterpiece, and it unfortunately falls just short of achieving it. This is not the fault of Gray himself – he made yet another terrific film, and one that very effectively says everything it wants to say.

Rather, the reason behind this film missing out on being a truly astounding piece of science fiction lies in something more unfortunate, and much more avoidable: some form of studio tampering, which is very evident in the final product. Famously, Ad Astra has been in production for quite a while and was recently retooled after Disney purchased the studio behind this film. Naturally, this meant that it would be subjected to some executive changes in order to make it more commercial, and while it didn’t detract from the fact that Ad Astra is a genuinely great film, the edits did prevent it from becoming the definitive science fiction masterpiece it seemed capable of being, as Grey’s underlying vision clearly suggests.

However, Ad Astra is still a great film, and a lot of that is due to Brad Pitt. Unquestionably one of the greatest stars of his generation, with this film being some of his most interesting and profoundly moving work in quite a while. Along with his extraordinary work in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Pitt is proving to be navigating his third renaissance, now finding himself occupying more mature, but no less effective roles that make great use of both his immense talents and remarkable charm that have been his most useful resources. The only difference is now Pitt’s status as an industry veteran forms an integral part of his characters, someone who has been around for a while and seen multiple generations of filmmakers come and go, developing a sense of world-weary wisdom that serves the film well.

This is a role that clearly was tailor-made for Pitt, and in the hands of any other actor, it’s doubtful this film would’ve worked nearly as well. It is mostly focused entirely on him (there are some memorable performances in the periphery, such as the bewitching Ruth Negga, and Donald Sutherland at his most empathetic), and relies very much on his understated performance that remains subtle without being indistinct, which is not an easy feat. Pitt is terrific in Ad Astra, and if anything, it reminds us of the effortless star quality he possesses, and how he brings a certain rugged elegance to all of his roles, and how he can command the screen with remarkable intensity, even if the role itself is far more subdued when filtered through Pitt’s sage perspective.

Gray’s inspiration for this film coming from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is evident, but only in terms of the theme of an individual undergoing a process of self-realization while on a quest to rescue someone who has been corrupted by some force, whether internal or external. Here, the Kurtz takes the form of Clifford McBride, played with a mix of empathetic resignation and sinister misanthropy by Tommy Lee Jones, who sits in isolation on the far side of the galaxy, content to live out his days far from civilization, his actions indirectly causing the slow and troubling elimination of the world he so gladly retreated from. Yet, this may be the final destination of the story, but it is the journey there that means the most. Much like Marlowe, Roy McBride struggles to understand the world around him – he isn’t against humanity, and he is often quite intense in his compassion, to the point where he is unable to make the difficult decisions.

This is why Ad Astra is so compelling – it isn’t only about an astronaut venturing into deep space to rescue someone – it’s a quiet and intimate film that may appear to be a broad science fiction adventure, but is actually far more of a subdued psychological drama, a thriller set in space, where the enemy isn’t from another planet, or even from another country, but the people we thought we could trust the most, and sometimes even ourselves. McBride, like his father, has had a lot of time to think and ruminate over the details of his life and the concept of existence as a whole – but unlike his father, he hasn’t gone grown disillusioned with the idea that life is not worth living, and that we should be in search of something a lot deeper (the father-son dynamic is one that strengthens the film, but certain should’ve been explored more). By the end of Ad Astra, where McBride finally returns to Earth after an ambiguous amount of time, it is almost a cathartic experience, because while he ventured off into space to aid the government in their efforts to find extraterrestrial life, he realized there is still so much to learn about ourselves.

With such complex subject matter, it’s clear that Gray hasn’t crafted a typical science fiction film here, choosing to make a meditative film about one man going on a perilous journey, and finding himself undergoing some form of psychological travail as well, questioning his own existence and mortality. This is precisely why Ad Astra does ultimately succeed, because even if there was a concerted effort to extract a blockbuster from a premise that is the antithesis of the studio tentpole film some expected it to be, the cerebral underpinnings overwhelm everything else, and the often extremely moving storyline, which questions a lot more than other major science fiction films, only aids in giving it emotional gravitas to go along with the more subtle themes. Impressive on the technical level (proving that Gray is capable of effectively utilizing a bigger budget), but one where the visual effects don’t overwhelm the modest core of the narrative. There’s no need for anything to be hidden behind the beautiful effects, as there is more than enough underlying the story for the film to stand not only as a great science fiction film, but an astounding character-driven drama. There’s a certain symbiosis between story and style, where both have equal substance and work together to create a thoroughly compelling experience.

Above everything else, Ad Astra is a very intelligent piece of speculative fiction, and it uses its concept very well – it may be inspired by the outline set by other work, but it never relies on anything other than its premise that may not be entirely revolutionary, but still manages to find an uncommon sense of profundity through its meaningful approach to a familiar set of conventions. The film comes together beautifully at the end, and while it may not always be quite as cohesive as it could’ve been had Gray been given more free-reign to realize his vision, it’s still an exceptionally well-made film that definitely finds the right balance between brains and brawn, flourishing into a pensive film that demonstrates that sometimes one needs to venture to other worlds to realize the value of our own.

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