James Gray is one of the few directors in Hollywood, or perhaps on the skirts of Hollywood (his films do feature big name actors) who makes films for himself and anyone who happens to enjoy it, refusing to cater to popular taste. Indeed, this is a man who told Cannes Critics to go f*ck themselves following the screening of The Immigrant in 2013. It is refreshing to see films in the mainstream that consistently intrigue, or at least attempt to carve their own path with their originality.
Taking place in the near future, Ad Astra centres around astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), whose father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a fellow astronaut, is regarded as a hero of space travel due to his achievements in outer space, specifically his dedication to the task of finding other life-forms somewhere within the cosmos, as well as travelling further from Earth than any other human, despite the obvious risks. When he was near Neptune, communication with Clifford was lost.
It is soon suspected that Roy’s father is responsible, as the surges are coming from near Neptune – exactly where Clifford’s ‘Lima Project’ lost communication with Earth. Roy’s relationship to Clifford is used to make contact with him as authorities now suspect he is alive and responsible for the electrical surges.
Before this, the film starts strong: an impressive sequence sees Roy repairing one of Earth’s space antennae, whose purpose is interestingly similar to that of his father’s mission goal. Severe electrical surges smash into the antenna, sending Roy hurtling towards the ground in maybe a nod to 2001. It is an ideal beginning, wasting no time in launching the story.
Roy’s feelings about his father are obviously mixed and confuse him for the entire film. Clifford left him when he was 16 to venture into space knowing there was a good chance he’d never return. It is never clear if Roy resents him for this, as he is the epitome of calm. Or cold, depending on how you perceive it. Even while falling from a very high altitude, his heart rate never went over 80, and never has. This is an interesting symptom of the way he internalises and compartmentalises different aspects of life, which led to a divorce and being told, ‘even when you’re here, you’re not here’. This is one of very few flashback sequences, there’s enough to establish Roy’s loss without adding a needless romantic component.
His personality shares parallels with his father – we regularly hear his internal dialogue which, while poorly written, invites us into his psyche. Once we hear how conflicted he is about his own personality, it is unsurprising that he constantly looks confused and lost, as if he is unsure what to think or how to act… apart from how to complete his mission.
Gray uses the setting of space, as well as the coldest planet in the solar system to provide apt, if not somewhat obvious metaphors for the distance between the two, both in distance and psychological distance, which are both due to his father’s decision to leave. Neptune seems to embody the cold qualities of both mens’ personalities, and while they are different people, Roy becomes increasingly entangled in his own paranoia, wondering if he is more like his father than he would like, or if he is in fact slowly turning into his father. Regardless, he moves forward on his increasingly complicated mission. True to his word, he is dedicated, but is soon experiencing a severe personality crisis.
While far from subtle, this allegory for strained relationships between fathers and sons, a much more serious issue than many realise, and an unhealthy way to process one’s emotions and problems in life, is beautifully presented. Hypnotic yet understated camerawork pulls us further into Ad Astra’s world. The icing on this proverbial cake is the score by Max Richter, who used real sounds taken from Voyager satellites, as well as his compositions, to create an appropriately otherworldly atmosphere.
Ad Astra’s story truly does aim for the stars in it’s ambition, as per its Latin translation ‘To The Stars’. The themes of father/son relationships, of internalising and compartmentalising different problems, are all sensationally portrayed by a typically stellar Brad Pitt who never looks remotely happy, or even comfortable.
Apart from the poor dialogue written for Roy’s internal dialogue, this movie is gripping, hypnotic and meaningful while packing a powerful emotional gut punch. The amount of positive adjectives I could use to describe this film feels limitless. Like all of Gray’s films, Ad Astra is unique and will again become divisive. It is a film that truly begs to be seen at least twice.
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I definitely feel it is a “man’s film”. I enjoyed it for the most part. My only problem was the let down at the end. Too little after a very long wait in space. The message was obvious from the start.
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I’m a sucker for space-based sci-fi really. IO’m unsure how its a ‘man’s film’ though. I agree the message was obvious, but I’d have thought parent/child relationships would resonate with anyone, I know my sister liked it cos she was reminded of how she sees both my parents.
Honestly I don’t know anymore. Everything seems to be sexist or racist or somethin-‘obic’, I’m not saying that is your point, but I am lost at this point.
Honestly, I’m waiting for people to label The Irishman sexist. But a movie like Hustlers or The Kitchen isn’t? Can it not go both ways. Those two films seem like pure gimmicks and not much more, though I have heard Hustlers isn’t too bad, unlike The Kitchen
Hi Jordan. Oh, my, I seemed to have hit a nerve. I do agree with you with just about everyting you say! I, too, get tired of all the politically correct demands. I said the comment that it’s a man’s film because, say, like other manly films “The Irishman” the only people I here talking about it are men. This is wrong to say because as a women, I LOVE “manly” films as opposed to Rom-Coms which are considered “girly” films. I’m old and grew up with that notion. I know people are trying to redefine what is masculine and feminine. It’s a grey area now.
ANYWAY, I’m glad you liked the film. I didn’t like Tommy Lee’s role. It should have been more developed. That’s my criticism. I thought Brad did a fine acting job and the film was a visual treat, for sure.
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Interesting indeed. I agree with your assessment on TLJ’s character, though it didn’t need much to establish how much of an arsehole he is.
I get what you mean by many films, tbh I hav e never taken much notice of casts. But now the pendulum has swunf too far the other way, and we end up with films like ‘Hustlers’ and ‘The Kitchen’. But hey, they could be great films, I do want to see Hustlers admittedly.
But this all female cast feels like a gimmick. Of course the MeToo movement needed to happen, but its now the total opposite. Hustlers isn’t sexist apparently, but many folks (I’m not saying you were one of them) cried and yelled that Tarantino’s last film was sexist. Apparently l someone accused Dunkirk of being racist!! Sorry for the rant, but PC bullcrap really shits me off as you can probably tell. I’m sure some far lefties will accuse trhis film as well as the Irishmen as sexist.
But Hustlers, The Kitchen, they are fine?? Does sexism only go one way?
It is indeed a very, very grey area. Though I’ll be honest, if you feel like a girl in a guy’s body, hell I have no problem with that!
But when ‘gender fluid’ starts to pop up, as well as the use of hormone blockers to help children change sex. Which is just wrong, morally, ethically. That child doesn’t have the capacity to decide!
Ach I know I’m rambling but you mentioning PC bullcrap just started me off, haha!
BTW, you must, must get the soundtrack to this film. It is perhaps Max Richter’s best work – a big claim I know but god it is hypnotic, it helped the movie so much.
He actually started the compositions for this film two years ago!!! And weaving subtle sounds from the Voyager satellite into his compositions – genius IMO.
I shall shut up now!!! I’m thinking of going to see Birds of Passage. I’ve heard good things.
I enjoy your ramblings. No problem. I agree. I’m a woman and a feminist and I think the pendulum has swung too far. Okay, I’ll check out the Max soundtrack. I want to see the Le Mans car movie with Damon and Bale.
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Would love to hear what you think of that soundtrack. And its nice to read that my ramblings aren’t annoying! At least to you… 😛
The only Le Mans car movie I know of is the Steve McQueen one. I’ve never heard of this new one you’re talking about! I’ll have to look up Bale and then try to find the title
As you already know, this is among my favorite experiences all year. It’s got the perfect combination of elements for me: a ponderous, soul-searching journey, absolutely stellar (heh) visuals thanks to Hoyte van Hoytema, and some powerful though not overly showy performances. I was really struck by how much of a bastard TLJ was. That scene hit me hard.
Of all the reviews I’ve read of this, yours might be the only one that has singled out the use of actual Voyager data/noise to incorporate into the soundtrack. That’s really cool. And absolutely adds to the authenticity of “being there.” I really wish I saw this twice in theaters but tickets are just soo expensive dammit
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Me too, I only caught it once. Yeah man Max Richster started work on this like 2 years ago. Fuckin’ worth it ey. I can’t stop listening to it!!! It and Joker, god both soundtracks are fucking amaaaaaaazing. Then again I usually like most of em haha, tho Richter is amazing.
I was also hit hard by TLJ. And I never knew exactly where it was going, apart from him not going back, that seemed obvious. But what I actually forgot to write about was – like you said, what a bastard – but it can happen to anyone.. being isolated completely certainly helps haha – but any full blown obsession like that can easily lead to delusion. And he was obviously obsessed to leave his son, not that he gave a shit haha, but to go on what he knew was a one way trip.
But still, yeh…. it shocked me too how fucked TLJ was. I knew he would be, but…. it still shocked me.
Great movie, only a few niggles, mainly the internal dialogue. You can tell its not based on a book cos those lines are so horridly written. But a small price to pay for then rest of the awesomeness.
BTW dude, did you ever see High Life? Female French director, sci-fi/space/post-apocalyptic sorta shit tho the latter you don’t directly see. Its her first film in English, I think you may dig it. One of those movies you easily watch over 5 times yknow
I was so sure I wasn’t going to care for this and I ended up liking it quite a bit. Glad you did too!
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Coolness 😀 Not at the top for me this year, but damned good!! I prefer High Life if I’m honest, Clare Denis’ first english lang film, it has Robert Pattinson is a great role
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