“Ad Astra” offers invigorating visuals and thematic undertones

“Ad Astra” is the latest film by writer-director James Gray, a gripping drama set in the near future where advancements in interplanetary space technology have led to the colonization and militarization of adjacent heavenly bodies. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a dedicated astronaut in the United States Space Command and son of legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). After a series of catastrophic electromagnetic pulses wreak havoc throughout the solar system, Roy is assigned to locate and contact his father, who has been missing in space for over 16 years while pursuing evidence of extraterrestrial life. 

The film is strongest in its visual design. The gargantuan set pieces, from the sectors of government-sanctioned command centers to the cabins of privatized space flights, offer a realistic glimpse of what could be. The hauntingly dark space that encompasses the ships creates a chilling, empty backdrop for enormous spacecrafts to trek and for lunar officers to twirl. Gray and production designer Kevin Thompson did extensive research with NASA to create a natural, realistic feel to the movie. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose past work includes visual treasures such as “Her,” “Interstellar,” and “Dunkirk,” is responsible for the movie’s invigorating visuals by playing with how light and color are seen in outer space.

This performance shows that Brad Pitt is having a career year, with this performance being his second in a handful of months to receive whispers of potential Academy Award nomination (his role in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” this summer has been honored as one of his best). Pitt’s portrayal of the cold, controlled hero navigating the massive, metallic universe Gray has created has received well-deserved critical acclaim. The success in his subtle acting lies in his calm restraint, as his character must periodically undergo psychiatric evaluation to ensure he is mentally stable enough to carry out his mission. Pitt provides solemn, careful narration as his character is molded by the increasingly empty galaxy around him. His calculated movements during perilous sequences as well as his contemplative tone in intimate confessions guide the movie along its two-hour runtime.

“Ad Astra” showcases many different undertones, creating a backdrop for the tightly-packed themes. Of the plethora of ideas this film contains, Gray concentrates on humanity the most. In contrast to how space is viewed today as a frontier purely for scientific discovery, “Ad Astra” shows that even outer space is vulnerable to succumbing to a similar fate as Earth’s natural wonders. The moon has seemingly been turned into just another tourist attraction, exploited for commercial use. The present destruction of our planet in a futile search for nonrenewable resources has us looking ad astra (to the stars) for answers.

In “Ad Astra” Roy’s emotions are famously muted by his dedication to his duty, his heart rate never exceeding 80 BPM. He seems to be more comfortable floating in isolation than grounded on Earth, where he faces relationships that would need emotions in order to thrive. Through his self-possession and his mission to contact his distant father, the film explores masculinity and the effects of repression of the soul.

Stories about space and existentialism have been a mainstay at the box office this past decade, with films like “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” and “The Martian” among the most well known. Films like these are highly indebted to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” to which “Ad Astra” pays delicate homage. Films about space have clearly captured the attention and affection of the movie-going public, and as long as the films continue to touch audiences, they will continue to be produced.

“Ad Astra” is a beautiful journey across a sea of darkness that makes viewers question what we hold close and what we leave behind. It’s a truly magnificent film that will follow audiences far outside of the theater.

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