Written and directed by James Gray, co-written by Ethan Gross, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe. Also starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn, John Ortiz, Freda Foh Shen and Natasha Lyonne.
Stories set in space have become increasingly common, it’s a setting that still can yield never-ending possibilities for film but truly taking advantage of that and setting themselves apart from each other, is something not so common. This film plays into the classic of all space themed stories, a man searching for answers and it takes on a very dramatic, soul-searching tone that balances well with the challenges that being an astronaut bring and the vast, impressive imagery. Opening on Pitt’s Roy as he narrowly escapes an explosion caused by a mysterious power surge, following him as he plummets to earth with just enough time to pull his parachute, is a terrific way to kick things off, and leads in well to the larger story. After being informed that these power surges may have something to do with Roy’s father who disappeared during a mission on Mars, Roy must travel there to discover whether his father who’s been missing for 16 years is in fact alive.
It’s a key factor of the film how composed Roy is under pressure, his rather cold and calculated approach to the job which is ideal for his career yet has an understandably negative impact on his private life. The way that Pitt brings that steely composure and then has to adapt it when he’s confronted with an emotionally difficult moment is unsurprisingly impressive, he perfectly captures the slow progression of how affected his character is by these developments. Even with that colder, focused demeanour he still brings a charisma and almost enigmatic quality to Roy that makes him fascinating to watch, he’s highly intelligent, dedicated and unrelenting, all aspects that strengthen the compelling nature to the character. The supporting cast is full of hugely talented actors but sadly none of them really get their due, putting aside Jones for a moment, Negga in particular has so much to add not only because of her talent as an actress but the arc of her character could have been so much more involved but feels like more of a messenger. Similarly, the iconic Sutherland gets a nice amount of interaction with Pitt and their conversations explore the more emotional aspects of the story but they’re short lived. Surprisingly, Loren Dean and Sean Blakemore bring a lot to the film with their minimal roles, particularly the former who delivers a rather vulnerable performance while the latter brings a little charm and confidence. Tommy Lee Jones on the other hand is a difficult one to decipher, while it is a technically good performance, it’s plagued by the writing which didn’t know what to do with that moment once it got to him.
The whole premise is built around Roy being reunited with his father, finding out why he stopped contact and how it’s related to the deadly power surges and that is a solid concept which really builds tension and suspense but once it arrives, that all goes out the window. It very slowly leads up to this crux of its story but the result is entirely unrewarding, surprisingly the big finale is the least interesting aspect of the story; the danger, risks and consequences which all occur before this reunion are brilliant and exciting to watch so for it to go so speedily downhill after setting high expectations is incredibly disappointing. Ignoring the final scenes and some issues with how support characters are brought into the story, the writing is good, the dialogue, progression of Pitt’s character, and it has just enough action and drama. Although there is one exception to that rule in the form of a certain scene which goes a little over the top, it’s a classically divisive moment that some people will love and others will likely roll their eyes at its attempt to shock.
Gray’s direction however is undeniably captivating to watch, it’s thrilling yet pensive, it creates a great balance between action, sci-fi and drama. The cinematography (by Hoyte Van Hoyema: Interstellar, Dunkirk) captures the beauty of space extremely well which is unsurprising given his rather impressive filmography. It does a great job of capturing the emotion of the moment, it’s not trying to be flashy, it does exactly what it should with an extremely high quality. It’s surprising however that the score is fairly forgettable, with a film like this you’d expect booming, forceful, yet sentimental when need be, music to accompany it and while it’s certainly not bad work, it just doesn’t stand out.
Ad Astra built up so much expectation and suspense and then committed the cardinal sin of film, not having a satisfying ending, or arguably even a poorly executed one which fits in more with its brief attempts to shock. It’s unfortunately so disappointing that despite its fantastic earlier efforts, the whole film is brought down by its inability to round out the story and give its characters their due. Pitt gives another brilliant performance, he does an excellent job of capturing the evolution of Roy and how the story changes him from consistently calm and composed to emotional and raw, with events getting right under his skin but it’s a shame that his support cast don’t get much of a say in the matter. The film has a lot of good things to offer but ultimately sets itself up for failure.