Pathfinder Brad Pitt navigates his way through the stars in Ad Astra – and here’s our review.
In 2019, it seems that the intersection between ‘smart’ science fiction and a guaranteed box office return has become increasingly nebulous. So nebulous in fact, that studios seem far less willing to take chances on cerebral cinema in the sci-fi genre. In the wake of Annihilation’s global theatrical run being replaced by a Netflix release, or even Blade Runner 2049’s perceived failure, a commercial black hole that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and market, it seems that ambient science fiction that dares to look both inwards and out, is seemingly no longer financially viable. The era of the 1970s, where intellectual science fiction was characterised by an unhurried, abstract approach seems as hauntingly distant as the furthest reaches of our solar system.
Ad Astra then, feels like a thoughtful attempt to slowly reverse that polarity. With less mainstream thrust than Gravity or even The Martian, it uses the star power of Brad Pitt (in wonderful form) and a smattering of action to generate entertainment, whilst simultaneously reaching back to the New Hollywood era of science fiction to loosely shroud itself in the type of existential enigmas offered by 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris. That in itself is a tricky balancing act, yet one the film manages to deftly achieve, with one exception that we’ll return to shortly.
The conceit itself is simple: in the near future, astronaut, Roy McBride is ordered to navigate the cold reaches of the solar system to find his missing father, a brilliant scientist who may understand the source of power surges threatening Earth. Director James Gray does an admirable job of creating distance between the film’s characters, whether their relationships be professional and personal. The remoteness of space is already present and tangibly manifest in the hearts of humanity. A trip to one extra-terrestrial colony in the film reveals it to be a coldly corporate mockery of man’s quest to reach the stars: the further humanity reaches, the further it strays from its true potential. This emptiness pervades the film, and it’s here that tonally speaking, Ad Astra is the most successful.
In its quest to appeal to both the esoteric and the mainstream, you sense that Ad Astra is a film that has made creative compromises, but happily, it’s so delicately weighted that those choices rarely rise to the fore. The few action sequences are restrained and self-contained; the philosophical musings are fathomable yet offer a degree of depth, the one exception to the film’s introspection being the voiceover, which for this reviewer, didn’t always work. For some reason, staring into the cold void of space isn’t so existentially terrifying when you have Brad Pitt’s comforting drawl in your ear. It is however, an excellent performance from Pitt, still and measured and worthy of recognition.
Whilst never quite fully exploring the impressionistic avenues of its New Hollywood ancestors, Ad Astra does don the trappings of its forbears with a sense of style. The narrative borrows heavily from Coppola, with both Apocalypse Now and to a lesser degree, The Godfather being influences. Aesthetically, the same era is channeled too, with both costume and set dressing being visually redolent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and other space-faring films of that era. Whilst Ad Astra ultimately chooses not to navigate a truly cerebral path through the stars, retaining instead, degrees of blockbuster sensibility, with a ‘modest’ $87.5 million budget (Blade Runner 2049’s was $155 million) and a more accessible running time, this could potentially the vessel to correct the wayward path of ‘smart’ science fiction.
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