This film has been on my radar for a while. I am a big fan of this kind of sci-fi film and the trailers have sold this as an intelligent, thought provoking sci-fi film. I was expecting something that would impress me on a visual level and would be a good sci-fi film. I wasn’t expecting to get as emotionally invested in the film as I did.
The film takes place in the near future and follows astronaut Roy McBride who, following a series of energy pulses from near Neptune, is recruited to try and stop them as it’s discovered that the pulses are coming from a long missing craft servicing The Lima Project, an attempt to find extraterrestrial life, headed by Roy’s dad, Clifford McBride. Whilst on his mission, Roy also has to come to terms with his relationship with Clifford and how he has hidden his emotions for so long. This emotional side of the film is what led to Ad Astra having the power it had over me. For most of the film, Roy suppresses his emotions because that’s what he’s been led to believe will enable him to work to the best of his abilities, and whilst the film does show this to be useful in some instances, such as remaining calm when falling, it also shows the damage hiding emotions can cause. This is not only through damaging the relations with those around you, but also with the pain caused when opening the emotional floodgates. Roy has suppressed his emotions for so long that he is not in a healthy place to fully process them when he is able to express them. To me, this acts as an indictment of the way men are taught to hide emotions, especially as the only times Roy is able to make progress with his mission are when he’s able to express genuine emotions, but he’s forced to hide them as it is perceived by the higher ups that emotion makes him weak. To me, showing that there is a balance between logic and emotion is the core of the film, along with showing how embracing emotion allows people to foster empathy and appreciate the little moments in life that are taken for granted otherwise.
The film also does a great job with worldbuilding, showing a world where the Moon and Mars have been colonised and providing an insight into how this society works. There are little satirical hints towards the commercialisation of space travel, with the main hubs for the Moon acting as an airport, showing how overt commercialisation can take away from the joy of space travel. The use of real brands meanwhile gave me a bit of a 2001 feel in the way they’re utilised to show how major corporations modify and expand their brands to take advantage of the markets that are offered by space travel. The world building also allows for some great moments of suspense in the moments when things aren’t spelled out clearly, allowing the audience to piece together what is going on for themselves.
The performances meanwhile are solid throughout, even if some of the cast are underutilised. Brad Pitt’s performance here is excellent. On the surface there’s something bland and lifeless about his performance, especially with the narration, but here it works as an extension of how Roy suppresses his emotions, with there being more power and sincerity to his performance and the narration as he expresses his emotions more clearly, being a strong indicator of how isolated Roy is both physically and mentally from the rest of society. Whilst I don’t want to spoil the film, Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as Clifford McBride, showing the dangers of long term isolation and a lack of empathy to others, with the scenes where he interacts with Pitt being emotionally devastating in how they are a culmination of the relationship between Roy and Clifford. Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler and Ruth Negga make strong impressions in the small roles they have, adding to the world of the film and helping to show the importance of empathy and being able to express yourself on an emotional level, along with the damage caused by secrets and lies.
On a technical level the film is outstanding. The direction and cinematography by James Gray and Hoyte van Hoytema respectively is incredible, working with stellar production design to create a believable world, allowing the more surreal moments of the film to pop and create a visually stunning film, aided by it clearly being made on film stock, giving this graininess to the film which, to me, heightens the visual splendour of the film. This also works well for the action scenes in the film, with a scene involving moon pirates being a thrilling setpiece, whilst a scene on an abandoned research vessel is one of the most tense things I’ve seen in a film this year. The music by Max Richter is outstanding. Granted, there are some points where the music reminded me a bit of Sunshine, but that’s not a bad thing for me because I adore the score for Sunshine, and the way Richter’s score is used in the film adds to the emotional weight the film has.
Overall, Ad Astra is the kind of sci-fi film I love. It is a visually stunning film that also has an important message about suppressing emotion and the nature of empathy. Granted, some of the actors are wasted and it does move a bit slow in places, but these didn’t detract from the power the film had over me.
My Rating: 5/5