Rated: 12A Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland. Directed by James Gray Written by James Gray and Ethan Ross
Going into ‘Ad Astra’ I was slightly tentative. I wouldn’t say that space films are one of my favourite genres, and from what I’d seen in the trailers, the film didn’t appear to have any particularly redeeming qualities, unlike the humour of ‘The Martian’ or the delicate relationships within ‘First Man.’ Furthermore I was concerned about the pacing of the film, with a worry that it would be very slow for the sake of a sense of realism. But walking away from the film, I’m happy to say that the film completely surprised me.
If someone asked me to sum up James Gray’s film in one word, ‘sweet’ is the most applicable one I would be able to find. From the gentle and patient – almost heart-breaking – interactions that Brad Pitt’s character, ‘Roy McBride,’ has with those around him, to the beautiful cinematography that provides a true insight into the wonders of our universe, this film’s key elements are placed delicately along a linear storyline that allows for a growing connection between the audience and Roy McBride. To describe the film as ‘minimalist’ would be selling it short, but ‘Ad Astra’ approaches certain tropes of cinema in a new way – and not just simply because of the setting. Indulging in moments of action and ‘Alien’ inspired thrills, the design remains simple but the threat remains imminent. In such scenes, stylisation becomes a delicate balance between ensuring consistent themes of dedication and love are maintained, whilst telling stories of bandits on the moon and unsettling distress signals. This was not the film I expected it to be, and I am so happy about that.
I really enjoy narration. The omnipresent voice of some character who is allowed a self-reflective channel between themselves and the audience is something which when done well, can be a key element of a film’s success. In ‘Ad Astra,’ it took me a while to get used to the amount of narration that Brad Pitt’s character was allowed. It may be no more than the average film, but due to the long periods of silence or dialogue-lacking scenes, the narration can appear at first as almost excessive. There’s a reason Ridley Scott removed Deckard’s narration in ‘Blade Runner,’ as this kind of dialogue can easily become less of a source for connection, and more of a means to remove a story’s ambiguity. However, in much the same way as ‘Blade Runner,’ I began to see ‘Ad Astra’ as a modern take on the classic film-noir style of the 1940’s; with a storyline focused mainly on a single protagonist, seemingly guided by their own narration as they work to solve a mystery that has profound impacts on their own life, whilst also working within a beautifully designed world. ‘Ad Astra’ appears to be less of a homage and more of contemporary take on such a convention.
To address my opening paragraph, yes the film can be slightly slow in parts, but this isn’t a bad thing. Longer takes and less dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean that the story isn’t developing. ‘Ad Astra’ acknowledges this and works through the events of the film at its own pace. As a viewer I was happy to see the director putting more emphasis onto the entirely isolating aspects of space, rather than further action scenes or dramatic dialogue, allowing me to be pulled further into the diegesis.
In conclusion, I highly encourage you to go and see ‘Ad Astra,’ and approach the film with a willingness to be drawn into the terrifying elements of space, as well as the touching performances that are brought to the screen by both Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. It may not be a top contender come awards season, but it’s a film that isn’t afraid to attempt new ideas, and that’s why I think James Gray’s ‘Ad Astra’ is such an important watch.