In this day and age of streaming studios and the never-ending supply of box-sets, science fiction seems to being pumped at us at an increasing rate. The unfortunate truth however is that the majority is pretty useless; fag-packet scripts, stock plots and ropey CGI is in abundance in the genre which always had the ability to push high concept narratives. Studios don’t seem to want to take a risk on complex stories and high science because plainly they think us all a little too dumb to deal with it. Luckily, there are still a few filmmakers out there who have enough clout to get something special green-lit in this heavily over-populated space, James Gray being the latest with the wonderful Ad Astra.
As increasingly massive energy surges begin to batter the earth, the US space authority are convinced the anomalies are being caused by the long lost Lima Project mission, captained by cosmonaut hero Clifford McBride (Lee Jones), now somewhere in the vicinity of Neptune. His son, Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is tasked with travelling to Mars to send a high speed laser message to appeal to him to attempt to get some explanations.
Although there are two spectacular action sequences in Ad Astra, it is by no means a big sci-fi adventure movie. In fact, space is used primarily as a vehicle to tie up the physical isolation of the cosmos to the emotional and individual isolation of both father and son. The biggest spectacles on show are the wonderful silent fly-bys of our neighbouring planets, and this is where Ad Astra will divide opinion. Anyone expecting a popcorn munching frolic through space will be severely disappointed as Ad Astra deliberately takes its time, the camera holding on Pitt’s face for as long as Gray thinks necessary to put across the pilot’s innermost thoughts. It has the pace of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Nolan’s Interstellar or even Dark Star and 2001. This is character based hard science and it’s a credit to the studio for letting Gray put it together as he envisioned.
The commercialisation of the moon is a nice touch, bringing the instantly forgettable high street feel to what has always been one of mankind’s greatest aspirations. The two hundred dollar pillow pack on the Virgin Atlantic (why not Galactic?) moon shuttle another nod to the ways humanity will always find to squeeze an extra penny or two out of the populous.
Pitt puts in a restrained career best here and will no doubt be rubbing shoulders with Joaquin Phoenix come awards time. This is without doubt Pitt’s show, with Donald Sutherland and Liv Tyler among the A-listers to get short narrative shrift, Tyler in particularly getting very little more than out of focus background scenes. McBride is an emotional void, unable to show compassion or love, his heart rate never rising above 50bpm even in times of general panic, so for Pitt to bring out some colour in a character that on paper is psychologically stunted is quite a feat.
Some of the science behind Ad Astra is questionable, and a couple of scenes (we’re looking at you space-mandrills) seem a bit clunky, but generally Gray hits home with each scene and although Ad Astra won’t be for everyone, it is a true sci-fi classic in the making.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland
Director: James Gray
Review by Colin Lomas