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Review: Ad Astra

by Murtada Elfadl

The thing about having daddy issues is that you can never escape them. No matter how far you travel, even into space. In Ad Astra these issues drive Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut sent on a mission across the solar system to find out the reason behind recent catastrophes,  including fires and plane crashes, taking place on Earth. The kicker here is that his astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing in another space expedition 29 years ago, might be connected to what’s happening. Not only does Roy have to confront the dangers awaiting him on his mission, he also has to deal with his feelings about his father and being abandoned by him.

The space odyssey element is surprising twist for writer director James Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) but the father son imbroglio isn’t at all...

It was part of the narrative of his last film The Lost City of Z (2017), which is the film closest to Ad Astra in theme. Percy Fawcett, in Z, left everything behind and went into the Amazon searching for knowledge. Both McBrides take the same journey here, with space standing in for the jungle.

Billed as a paranoid thriller, this is actually more of an internal journey into the psyche of its protagonist. Albeit one that finds time for brief action set pieces on Mars, and for elaborate production design that imagines how the near future would look like. And it’s that internal expedition that Roy goes through, rather than the actual mission, that holds our interest and makes this worthwhile. He’s trying to find out his father’s story while reconciling his own life and relationships. Like the recent spate of cerebral space movies - there’s one every Fall - the protagonist’s subconscious is what the filmmaker is concerned with, despite the dazzling visuals and special effects. To his credit Gray is less literal with his mcguffin so there are no dead children (Gravity, First Man), or zany antics (The Martian) and he doesn’t try to explain the meaning of love (Interstellar). Rather the audience has to work harder to find meaning in the proceedings, but if they do Ad Astra reveals itself to be taciturnly moving. What struck me most is that the father / son relationship mirrors a familiar quest that most of us go through; can we ever be content with what we have despite our human nature to always search for more. Ad Astra might be a big ballyhoo to go through just to come at such a simple denouement, but that is also the source of its beauty and poignancy.

Pitt carries the film with a quietly stunning performance. He’s playing a man who doesn’t show much emotion. Literally. The film starts with a scene that tells us that Roy’s heartbeat never goes above 80 BPM no matter how stressful the situation he is in. Yet he finds a way to make reticence look highly emotional on screen. For most of the running time we mostly see his face, and on that face we are able to read what Roy is going through despite him trying to keep it all in. The performance is so immense that Gray should’ve trusted his star to convey his otherwise sparse script without the abduntunt voice over narration he deploys. The year of Pitt looking hot again on screen continues after Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. May he never hide that beauty again like he did in some of his recent films (The Big Short, War Machine). Though here it is a more weathered but still gorgeous Pitt. He makes the case successfully for making eye bags alluring.

We see many name actors briefly - Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, Kimberly Elise - but they are there just to drive the plot forward and to get Roy where he needs to go. A missed opportunity since Gary has previously shown interest in even the minor characters. Even Jones despite his character looming over the whole narrative only gets a few brief moments. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema and the score by Max Ritcher create an engulfing atmosphere that goes beyond holding attention into absorption. The film avoids the pitfall of explaining the process of space travel, but Gray and his collaborators build visually and sonicaly a mood that both make you feel that you are going somewhere new and also deep within.  


Ad Astra opens wide on Friday September 20.

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Reader Comments (21)

Why do you (meaning all of The Film Experience team) post your reviews early? I know Thursday evening they start screening at the multiplex but..this is too damn early for a conversation without our own evaluation. And once people can start adding to the thread it'll be push several places down into back pages. I wish Nathaniel could pin a thread we're deeply invested in.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Thanks for the review. Is it worth seeing this in IMAX? Will large-screen Dolby suffice?

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

What do you think about oscars prospects?

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjota

/3rtful -- i'm actually fascinated that this is a complaint. We are just about the only site that doesn't review weeks early and try to post them between wed and sun of the opening weekend. We've definitely lost traffic because we're never "early" but now publishing on the day of the release is too early ? It opens tonight!

September 19, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Suzanne - I'm not a fan of imax but if it usually enhances your visuals go for it. This movie is gorgeous.

jota - none really... maybe sound?

September 19, 2019 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

I am a big fan of Gray. Pity that Ruth Negga’s role doesn’t seem as interesting as the ones played in his previous films by Gwyneth Paltrow, Eva Mendes, Vanessa Redgrave or Sienna Miller

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

@3rtful - I know what you mean, but on this site it seems like a majority of people will discuss said movie in the box office post after the weekend instead of backtracking to the review post. It is what it is.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

/3rtful & MDA --just for comparison's sake. I'm very curious about this as a problem. Do you have this issue eleswhere? Because when i look around at other sites I genuinely always feel like we're the last to review anything. I don't personally like early reviews which is why, apart from festivals, that we usually save them until opening weekend (as we did here since it opens tonight). Perhaps the solution would be to double print the reviews? just spitballing

anyone else frustrated by this? If so we'll try to think up some solutions.

September 19, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@Nathaniel - please note that my post was not a complaint, but merely an observation. You're right that other sites usually post their reviews a week or two before the release date, which is much too early. But posting the review after the first week or weekend of release doesn't make much sense either. I understand 3rtful's point, but it doesn't sound like there's a easy solution. I think keeping the status quo of posting it the day of is probably your best bet.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

@Nathaniel R

I frequent three sites yours, Jeffrey Wells, and Gold Derby. Everything else is twitter feed movie gossip and info. And I avoid twitter concerning movies I'm highly anticipating.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Did anyone else feel like the movie should've ended like 5 minutes earlier?

I liked it overall though, but the women were severely under utlized. Liv Tyler was completely a non-character and Negga had maybe 1.5 scenes. Did Kimberly Elise even say anything of import?

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Oh man, I’m excited about this one and even more excited after this review. I think Gray does interesting work consistently (even if I don’t always love it) and that Brad is a great actor/movie star. I am, however, sad that Ruth Negga has a small role. She won me over with Loving and her tv series, so I’m excited to see her in more significant tiles.

Re: reviews, I think the timing is usually fine. I’ve never had a problem, as I wait to read them here after I watch.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I also read the reviews after I've watched their respective movies. Unfortunately, it's too late to have a discussion about it. I think a practical solution to that is to have a "Keep the discussion going" link for each of the movies that have been featured on the site at the end of every box office report. That way, people can easily access all the reviews and also expect those links to be there every Monday/Tuesday. The links would be there even more than once. Like The Farewell could have a link on the box-office report post for 3 or 4 weeks. That way, people could have the opportunity to go back to it and keep the comments alive. Just an idea.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJared

I skipped this review and read it now that I've seen it, which I do all the time. Guys, if you want to go to a movie and want it to be fresh... just look at reviews after.


September 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

saw it a few hours ago

Gray has created a very withdrawn atmosphere with Ad Astra, in a way, withdrawn from life and everything we know, which I suspect is one of the purposes of the movie.

It reminded me of High Life, which I think I probably enjoyed more, because High Life is literally claustrophobia in space.

I guess you would have to instil the alien in a movie like Ad Astra, even if it's just a tiny hint, a sentence, because as wonderful as it is, Ad Astra doesn't seem to be much more than Daddy Issues in Space

I expected more, yes.

Brad Pitt is wonderful, I'm sure this performance will be better than at least one of the five Best Actor nods eventually selected by the Academy.

September 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

"Daddy Issues in Space" made me laugh and also made me think, hey, Star Wars!

September 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I am so excited for this. Love James Gray. But it also brings up sad memories of the public's shoddy treatment of First Man last year. Sigh.

September 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

The Avocado also posts their reviews on Thursday and Friday, and seem to have healthy comments.

Looking forward to this one the most of the 3 opening this weekend.

September 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Murtada and eurocheese - thanks for your responses!

September 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Boring as hell. A 2 hour nap

September 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterME

My husband and I enjoyed the visuals and the nods to Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now and 2001. We also enjoyed picking apart narrative inconsistencies and conveniences over dinner:) Still it was quite mesmerizing to watch. I would have loved to see it in IMAX. It was soporific at times, I suppose a reflection of the effect of travelling for long periods of time in space, but we never found it boring.

September 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

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