There are almost infinite possibilities with a space film. Space is unique in its isolation and pure untapped terror, seeing how little we know about it and what inhabits the quadrillions of light year’s of space that it has to offer.
The past few years have been kind to us in this area, films like Gravity, The Martian and Interstellar have shown us just a few of the possibilities of deep space, as well as some of its hostility, and now it’s the turn of Ad Astra, a sci-fi drama starring Brad Pitt.
With decades worth of space exploration films to succeed, Ad Astra has somewhat of an uphill climb to have any sort of relevance, luckily it has a bankable lead and a savvy director (James Gray, a former Palme D’Or nominee.) With such prominent films to follow, however, the task was still great.
It’s the ‘near future’ and a series of electrical surges emanating from deep space cause chaos on Earth. One such catastrophe involves astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) who finds out that these ‘surges’ have links to a past mission undertaken by his father. He is sent on a perilous journey through space to find his father and stop the surges.
One thing I’d say about Ad Astra is: it’s not a film if you like instant gratification. It’s slower and more contemplative than many modern films, almost to its detriment in the early stages of the film. It takes a while to find its stride, but the slowly-building narrative eventually does any admirable job of drawing you in and building suspense.
One of the things it does really well is portraying the isolation of space. Roy is a contained, thoughtful personality, not prone to much emotion, but when he’s on his own in the vastness of space, this starts to play against him. You really feel his deep loneliness as he flies towards uncertainty, which is almost exactly what space represents in films. It’s utterly unique in being hostile and unknowable, it’s finding out what lurks behind the stars that keeps bringing us back to these films.
I sense a lot of inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey in this film, especially in the cinematography, which does a fine job in juxtaposing both the immense vastness of space, and the claustrophobic nature of a rocket. There are numerous breathtaking shots in this film, some of the best space cinematography we’ve ever seen in fact, in both of the aforementioned environments, this is what really stood out to me, how staggeringly beautiful the film was to look at.
But without an engaging narrative and relatable characters, the best cinematography can be redundant, it’s all very well and good looking nice, but does it manage to hold your attention long enough to enjoy the lovely scenery, well, yes it does.
As I said before, the slower pace may put some people off, even though it’s not an overly-long film, it’s not in a rush to let its story unfold, it’s thoughtful with its events and the manner in which they unfold. It’s like one of those optic illusions that become clearer the more you look at them in that the story becomes clearer and clearer as time goes on.
It isn’t perfect. Some of the dialogue is a touch derivative and redundant, and there isn’t an awful lot of character development outside of Roy, who has a nice, clear emotional arc from start to finish, but characters are also very fleeting, we don’t stay in their company for long enough to develop, so it all balances out.
Brad Pitt is on fine form carrying this film too, he has by far the most to carry the film, his character is a near-constant presence throughout, yet his characteristics are conveyed gradually, it feels as though his mind opens up the further he goes into space. He starts as a man closed off from his emotions, and by the end, his experiences of being completely alone have opened him up to connecting with people, in a way that feels organic and not hackneyed.
So then, as a final word, I really loved this film. It drew me in gradually, so gradually in fact that I didn’t realise how invested I was until the final third and I felt that I had become completely immersed in this characters struggles, I was on the edge of my seat, and all it took was one man alone in a spacecraft. Stunningly shot, intelligently written and skilfully acted. A real treat for any sci-fi fan.