Brad Pitt's New Film Ad Astra is a Sublime Space Experience

In Ad Astra, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an alienated, lonely astronaut, just like Elton John sang: “a rocket man, burning up his fuse up here alone.” Set in the near future, Roy nearly falls to his death from a space antenna when Earth is struck by a “surge.”  The authorities soon explain that they believe the surge to be caused by McBride’s father, who has gone rogue and disappeared into outer space. McBride must then set out in search of his estranged father, a soul-searching journey on which he comes to terms with some difficult self-realizations. 

Source Ad Astra is a feast for the eyes thanks to immersive images of space and inventive lighting effects.

James Gray said that he wanted Ad Astra to have “the most realistic depiction of space travel that's been put in a movie,” and boy, did he achieve that. The film’s visual effects are truly breathtaking (Brad Pitt isn’t bad, either). Whether Roy is careening through the galaxy without a tether or roving across the moon at top speed while enemies chase him down, each scene is so immersive that only when they end do you stop and wonder, “Wait a minute – how did they do that?”

Not only are the planets rendered in stunning and realistic detail, but the interior sets are also beautifully lit in a rainbow of colors and effects that heighten the film’s emotional tone. In one scene, Roy paces around a room while footage of bees and birds are projected against the walls; in another, he discovers shocking truths about his father while a yellow orb of light dances around his face.

The attention to detail and originality in the lighting and set design are such a sight to behold, especially in the science fiction genre where set designs tend to all look the same after a while. The film’s artistic achievements make it all the more unfortunate that it has little to offer in the way of a compelling plot.  

Ad Astra’s main storyline feels overly simplistic for a drama set in such an alien (and no doubt expensive to reproduce) landscape. Roy has a difficult and estranged relationship with his distant father; in this case, literally, as his father has disappeared somewhere near Neptune.

Roy undergoes some interesting realizations, like confronting the lone wolf mentality he’s inherited from his father and the sacrifices he’s made for scientific exploration. Still, it feels like the film could’ve said much more about the egoism behind scientific pursuits, an issue it only just scratched the surface of. The central plotline is often too easily distracted by overly dramatic action scenes, like a fight with some baboons in an abandoned spaceship, that ultimately feel pointless except to show off more special effects.

Source Brad Pitt and director James Gray behind the scenes. Gray wanted the film to be “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.”

Still, what the film lacks in a unique narrative, its actors more than make up for in brilliant performances. For an actor I often find stolid and boring, Brad Pitt gives Roy McBride a sensitivity and subtlety that allows the audience to truly empathize with the astronaut who has lost his way in the universe. The film also benefits from its secondary performances, like Donald Sutherland as Colonel Pruitt, an aging astronaut who nobly tries to defy his age and health to help McBride find his father. Ruth Negga is suave yet touching as Helen Lantos, who assists Roy in his search for his father, and Tommy Lee Jones is a revelation in his role as the elder McBride who has been hardened by a lonely life in space. 

Source What Ad Astra lacks in a compelling storyline, it more than makes up for in breathtaking visuals. 

McBride’s own lines sum up Ad Astra well: “Beneath sublime surfaces, there’s nothing.” The film is all style and little substance, but for once, I find that forgivable. While the plot isn’t very thought-provoking, especially for a film about space exploration, it’s an absolute feast for the eyes. If you’re even remotely interested in outer space or science fiction, the film is well worth the watch. 


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