Friday, September 20, 2019

Ad Astra - Review

Here it is. The annual space film about an individual who has to go to the vastness of space to find out who they truly are. Many have tried, and many have failed, to tell a sweeping narrative amongst the stars that gets to the root of humanity, but none have been quite as brilliant as James Gray’s Ad Astra. While those seeking a fast-paced thrill ride may not find what they’re looking for, but for those willing to look beneath the surface, they’ll find an exploration of what it means to be human.

A man (Brad Pitt) journeys across a lawless solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) -- a renegade scientist that vanished sixteen years ago in the far reaches of our solar system -- who now poses a threat to humanity and every other living thing on Earth.

As it always tends to go, the visuals seem to stand out in all the praise for the film. The use of a mesmerizing color palette from location to location give the film a unique look while maintaining some familiarity with these places we’ve seen before. The difference with Ad Astra comes when director James Gray and cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytema resist the urge to get lost in sweeping shots of space, and choose to focus on the intimate moments instead. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a grand and ethereal score from Max Richter to go along with the spectacular visuals.

The deeper themes of the film are abundant, and often fairly clear for those paying attention. On a purely surface level inspection, the ideas of man’s place in the universe are all over the film. A visit to the moon reveals a tourist trap, complete with an Applebee’s, and pirates fighting for resources, showcasing human’s desire to colonize and conquer no matter the destination.

But then the film delves deeper. As man searches for other life in the universe, the reality of the situation becomes much smaller. We strive to find other intelligent life to potentially save us from our problems, both big and small. In that way, James Gray keeps a balance of tone firmly in place, between an epic journey through the cosmos and the personal turmoil of Brad Pitt’s character Roy McBride struggling with sins of the father.

Through all of the spectacle and philosophy, the center of the film’s universe is Brad Pitt. Carrying both the emotional and physical weight is no easy task, yet Pitt delivers the most subtle, refined, and maybe, best performance of his career. In the moments of quiet, subdued thought, Pitt’s face often occupies the frame and the pain of his character floods over the film. There is no showiness, no big scene where Pitt unleashes on that anger and anguish, there is just a man, perfectly calibrated to do his job.

Ad Astra is the newest addition in a line of highbrow sci-fi that’s occupied many a screen over the past few years, and it just may be the best of them all. Gray has constructed visual splendor in the midst of human tragedy and hurt, wrapped it in quite a bit of weirdness, and delivered it to the masses. It may not be a box office sensation, and it’s likely to only contend in below the line categories for awards, but time will favor this film like few others. Give yourself over to this film, invest in it, be patient with it, and you just may witness the newest sci-fi masterpiece.

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