Ad Astra (2019)

Experimental in cinematography stylism delivering some of the most jaw-dropping visuals in sci-fi history with a stellar (solemn) Pitt performance, genre-flipped appreciatory-over-exploratory themes, & emotion-repressive backbone._7.9/10.

Plot Synopsis: Thirty years ago, Clifford McBride led a voyage into deep space, but the ship and crew were never heard from again. Now his son — a fearless astronaut — must embark on a daring mission to Neptune to uncover the truth about his missing father and a mysterious power surge that threatens the stability of the universe.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Review

A Haunting, Emotion-Repressive Sci-Fi Thriller & Trauma Study By James Gray

“Someday; I’m looking forward to the day my solitude ends.” The new Neptune-set, cosmic-realist thriller by James Gray Ad Astra packs quite a wallop of sci-fi experimentalism eons ‘beyond the stars’ of most genre offerings of recent memory. Coming fresh off the sensational Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in classically-Tarantino crescendoing madness, Brad Pitt goes for something more solemn and range-testing here, (mostly) succeeding with Gray to produce a sophisticated modern-classic genre entry & thought-provoking breath of fresh air above the current landscape of space refuse scarier than any Xenomorph or Thing of yesteryears. Experimental in cinematography stylism delivering some of the most jaw-dropping visuals ever achieved in sci-fi with a stellar (albeit solemn) Pitt performance, genre-flipped appreciatory-over-exploratory themes, and emotionally-repressive unresolved relationship/parental backbone, Ad Astra is a beautiful, clear-cut character-study with enough sensory tricks and meat-on-the-bone to elevate – and innovate – the genre we go to for interstellar storytelling.

The Cinematography Magic Demanding The Biggest IMAX Screen Possible & Synthy Kubrickian Score Out The Annals Of The ’70’s

The visuals and score. Ad Astra is simply put one of the most beautiful sci-fi films I’ve *ever* seen visually. From desolate, rich midnight-blue landscapes of Neptune inexplicably forgotten in the genre but absolutely *jaw-dropping* to behold to red-hued Mars outposts to even little details like the opening tracking transition from title credit to sun to outline of McBride’s helmet to Earth to start the film, the cinematography is indescribably impressive. This is not only the frontrunner for Best Cinematography of 2019 come Oscars season, but perhaps a decade award for the genre delivering some of the most expansive, intricately-world-capturing shots I’ve beheld in my filmic tenure by mastermind Hoyte van Hoytema. The score mimics the visuals in wondrous richness with sneaky flute arpeggios juxtaposed by wide-spanning synth pads as infinite as the atmospheres it accompanies and fluttering bass hits to create a truly sublime auterist sound/visual experience that will smack a goofy grin on any Kubrick-craver or sci-fi nostalgic’s face, and demands the biggest IMAX screen possible to fully comprehend its incomprehensibility.

Experimental Genre-Innovation Through Appreciatory-Over-Exploratory Themes

Experimental genre-innovation. The indie flair Gray and his team display in trying to innovate the genre makes for one of the most interesting, bizarre tastes on the palate in a long time. It feels like a downright thriller or blockbuster in parts, like in its opening space station disaster scene we see Danny literally jumping between pillars and shots without the zero-gravity we’re accustomed to seeing like a Mission Impossible or Bond film set right at the precipice of antigravity. This – mixed with knife-fights and shield-riding asteroids in Neptune’s orbit later on – makes for splendiferous action sequences that get your heart pumping as an (unexpected, incredibly-unique)-surprise. Also flipped is the genre trope of sci-fi exploration and searching for extraterrestrial life for answers to life’s biggest questions like why we’re here and who made us, instead giving us an empty answer as solemn as Pitt’s performance – while serving as a crux for character development and even a happy ending wherein he realizes that maybe it’s a call for us to enjoy what we have here on Earth instead of diverting all this energy and manpower to lost worlds/peoples that may or may not exist.

The Psychological Dual-Character Study & Rooted, Career Brad Pitt Performance

The psychological character-study and rooted Brad Pitt performance. What’s best about Ad Astra outside its visuals is the psychologically-heavy character study it manages to pull off amidst all the powerful imagery and theme-exploration. We’re introduced to a clinically-depressed trauma-survivor with predisposed abandonment, rejection, and nihilistic issues – much of it stemming from his topsy-turvy relationship with his father he loved as a child only to have his time with him cut short indefinitely for unknown reasons. It’s a showcase of how unresolved relationships and repressive-emotional expression can affect a person/child growing up, and a powerful one at that. He cannot bring himself to get over it or find meaning beyond it, failing in marriage, finding melancholy in day-to-day life, and even devoting his entire career to follow in his father’s footsteps and make him proud or learn what happened to him – only to be in for a rude awakening over-stars when he finds the truth about him as another bleak ingredient for the melting pot. Pitt’s performance (while at times overdoing the solemnity to woozying (forced) levels) is strong and effectively-brooding as one of his most uncharacteristic and best-yet takes as contemplative and metaphysically-glorious as its dead-silent space backdrop. In opposition is a bone-chilling Tommy Lee Daniels villainous turn as the older McBride too that feels positively psychopathic in hunger effectively complicating the child/parental bond at the film’s core while anchoring it in something humanist and sinful.

Flaws

Tone, Finale.. & Monkeys

Flaws include a too-solemn tone and mildly-underwhelming final act.. and monkeys. The tone borders on near-suicidal at times with complete absence of light or joy for a questionably (over)-grim tone. I get the screenwriters were likely staging the scene for the final plot revelation wherein our thoroughly-haunted hero learns to appreciate and find beauty in what he once hated for a final hurrah of character development, but it’s too on-the-nose and forced coming across as unnatural as the inexplicable ravenous baboons that attack Pitt in one scene (um.. WTF??). The final act is also mildly underwhelming in what the film sets up to be an epic final showdown wherein son must confront father for his unspeakable crimes and take him back for justice. Old and as decrepit-feeling as the shell of older McBride we’re introduced to far from the villainous madman in the videos, the last 20+ min need some retooling as a pretty bland way to end its stellar interstellar predecessor acts.

Conclusion

A Visually-Wondrous Sci-Fi Saga Buoyed By Existential Thought & Career Pitt Performance

Overall, Ad Astra is a spectacular sci-fi saga the best of the year and amongst the top entries of recent memory for this lost, dying genre. Experimental in cinematography stylism delivering some of the most jaw-dropping masterpiece visuals in genre history with a stellar (albeit solemn) Pitt performance, genre-flipped appreciatory-over-exploratory themes, and emotion-repressive parental backbone, Gray’s new space-set yet human/Earth-centric flick is a love-letter to the idiosyncratic old-world atmosphere that made the genre so famous to begin – plus a few modern tricks.

Official CLC Score: 7.9/10