Ad Astra Review: The most ambitious and best original sci-fi movie in decades
While Brad Pitt’s already in the conversation for awards for his strong performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his performance in James Gray’s new original sci-fi epic, Ad Astra, definitely makes him an early awards favorite and the same can be said for Gray and the film.
The film follows Roy McBride (Pitt), a seasoned astronaut whose life has pretty much been centered around space travel after his father (Tommy Lee Jones) disappeared after embarking on mission to find intelligent life when Roy was young. However, after Earth is hit with a destructive power surge that could threaten all life on Earth, Roy learns that his father might still be alive and causing the surge. Roy is thus set to embark on a similar journey to his father and begins to question what exactly his purpose is on the mission and if his desire for space exploration has any meaning.
Pitt is one of those actors whose charm and stellar line delivery has made him an actor that viewers can always connect to regardless of the role. However, Roy isn’t the kind of character that Pitt normally plays as he’s incredibly reserved and isn’t allowed to show his emotions because he’s under so much pressure with constant psych evaluations. So rather than the bring his usual charm to the character, Pitt shows a whole new side of himself and a new strength in his acting range. Other than voice-over, the only way viewers can see how Roy feels about certain situations and instances is through Pitt’s facial expressions and actions. It’s actually incredible how much I resonated with Roy’s struggles at times without him saying much and it’s a legitimate testament to how strong Pitt’s performance is. The internal struggle that’s all over Roy’s face hits such a strong emotional chord and this restraint he must have makes moments where Roy finally breaks that much more impactful.
The use of voiceover is also impeccable in developing Roy’s character and letting viewers inside of what he’s thinking and the underlying themes of Ad Astra. With voiceover, there’s a great amount of depth that viewers actually learn about Roy with how he feels about his life, his father, and humanity’s desire to find intelligent life. These voiceovers may seem incidental at first, but they make Roy an incredibly engaging character to along with on his cathartic journey. The voiceover allows for Roy to release his inner thoughts that allow viewers to understand what Roy and Gray are actually delving into. Utilizing the background and some of the supporting characters, Gray and Roy dig deep into the heart of what the film’s truly about – humanity’s search for intelligent life.
Upon leaving the theater, I heard someone talk about the film as “a space exploration movie that’s anti space exploration” and I couldn’t think of a better way to describe Ad Astra. From how Gray shows how far humanity has gone with navigating and colonizing space to how more supporting characters help guide Roy to his final realization, there’s a very deep conversation about humanity’s desire to not be alone in the universe. Ad Astra is definitely all about Roy self-reflecting on his journey and about humanity’s, as well as his own, affinity for space exploration. It’s a journey that constantly sparks thought in viewers with every voiceover that lets Roy share his thoughts and psych evaluations that organically show the slow building emotion that waiting to burst out of Roy. All of this makes for an incredibly powerful finale that not only boasts a strong supporting performance from Jones, but also leaves a lasting impact on viewers. Roy’s journey and realizations about his views on humanity are clearly therapeutic for him and are what make him such a connective character and what makes Ad Astra such a thought-provoking and touching film.
However, none of these themes and ideas would be able to be explored as greatly as they are without Gray and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema creating a dynamic near future world. The film is a cinematic marvel with how it blends reality and sci-fi fantasy and it’s so visually stunning that it could easily give The Lion King a run for its money when awards come into play. The amount of detail that shows how far space exploration has gone is incredible to see and plays a heavy hand in the Roy’s journey. Even for the amount of lavishness and advancement Ad Astra explores, Gray never forgets to show that Roy’s journey is always so grand and the loneliness and isolation that Roy feels is palpable. There’s such a wide range of emotions that the film presents and nails with each sequence that has viewers completely hooked from start to finish. Not to mention, there’s some clear visual and thematic inspirations drawn from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that are always great to see and Gray makes them his own to evoke a similarly meaningful cinematic experience.
Ad Astra is a cinematic experience that simply can’t be missed and is one of the greatest sci-fi films in decades. Pitt’s never been better, and the film is full of passionate ambition that stems directly from Gray’s efforts. From it’s fitting and intriguing ideas about humanity to it’s incredible visuals, Ad Astra is a thoroughly touching narrative that makes it both one of my favorite films of the year and will leave me thinking for quite some time.