By Adam Brannon
Film Reviewer from Movie Metropolis for What’s On Hub
What’s your favourite sci-fi film of the last decade? Interstellar, The Martian, Blade Runner 2049: any of those? For me The Martian is an absolute masterclass in turning what can be a fairly difficult genre into box-office and critical gold.
Ridley Scott and Matt Damon created one of the best sci-fi films, not only of the last decade, but in the history of cinema and I confidently named it Scott’s best film since Alien, an accolade I still feel it deserves. Fast forward to 2019 and there’s another space flick vying for our attention: Ad Astra, but can it compete with the behemoths of the genre?
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) journeys across a lawless and increasingly dangerous solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) – a renegade scientist who poses a threat to humanity. But not all is as it seems as McBride tries to come to terms with the loneliness of space.
Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) comes to the project as a comparative newcomer to the genre and manages to create a deeply immersive and striking film that’s filled with powerhouse performances from its lead cast.
Brad Pitt is as dependable as ever as Roy McBride, an eerily calm presence over the course of the film. His character arc is nicely fleshed out as he comes to terms with increasing amounts of new information as the running time etches on. Elsewhere, Donald Sutherland is sorely underused but reminds us what a magnetic and relatively understated performer he is and Tommy Lee Jones is again a little short on screen time but manages to pull off a troubling character nicely.
However, Ad Astra is all about the space and it does feel vast here. Shot on a fairly small budget of $80million, James Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema bring to the screen some truly striking imagery which highlights the emptiness of our solar system. There are moments of Interstellardotted about and this is perhaps no surprise, given that Hoytema was the cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s film as well.
And while the action is fleeting, the intriguing plot, not spoilt in the trailers, and nicely choreographed sequences add a sense of claustrophobia to proceedings. The film’s strongest scene takes place on a lawless moon and highlights the destructive nature of human beings as a species: immensely powerful stuff.
Unfortunately, for all it does right, Ad Astra falls down in a couple of key areas. The first, and probably biggest gripe relates to the continuous narration Brad Pitt’s character provides throughout. It feels overly pretentious and while we feel his emotional angst from this constant monologue, we would definitely feel the same without it. As it stands, this narration adds unnecessary bulk, not allowing the audience to revel in some of the film’s moments of quiet contemplation.
Secondly, there’s an issue with some of the characters who seemingly disappear without trace, never to be mentioned again, even as the end credits role. These characters are so nicely written and investable that it seems a shame we don’t learn of their fates – perhaps this was intentional, but it’s jarring and at odds with the rest of the film.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t spoil what is a finely crafted and emotionally arresting film. Filled with beautiful landscapes and intense performances from the lead cast, Ad Astra may not be wholly original, but is fun while it lasts.
Our score: ★★★
Ad Astra is showing now at Odeon Luxe Cinema, Hull