Ad Astra (2019)

by The Movie Diorama

Ad Astra galactically depicts sorrow, proving that no one can hear you cry in space. For the past few years, dramas set in the expansive dangers of space have been my bread and butter. Devouring them during my annual breakfast as I purposefully starve myself for the taste of space traversal. Every year, the likes ‘Arrival’, ‘Blade Runner 2049’, ‘First Man’, ‘Interstellar’ and my all-time favourite film ‘Gravity’, have secured scores ranging from outstanding to perfect.

Whilst Ad Astra may be tilting towards the former adjective, it’s still irrefutably one of the best films of the year thanks to Gray’s understanding, yet again, of what makes a character study captivating. After unearthing the possibility that his missing father may still be alive, his astronaut son travels across the Solar System in search for him and to unravel a mysterious power surge phenomenon that threatens humanity’s survival.

Immediately, one thing I need to brush off my chest is the horrendous marketing. This is not a sci-fi blockbuster. There is limited “action”. And if you’re wanting the next ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Avatar’, then remove yourself from the cinema and watch mind-numbing nonsense like ‘Angel Has Fallen’ instead.

This is a James Gray extravaganza. A meticulously woven character study, harnessing melancholia to challenge an existential crisis. Thematically, Ad Astra’s premise bolsters a plethora of metaphorical imagery that divulges into the empirical purpose of humanity. Majestic planets emitting every prismatic shade available, yet emanating no emotional connectivity. The vacuous expansivity of space, marking humanity’s reflection on life as a mere speck of stardust. Worldly hostility reaching the depths of our galaxy, hyperbolising the “world-eating” philosophy of our own self-destruction as a species. The obsession to venture forth. Departing love, hate and grief. Welcoming nothingness.

Gray’s space-opera is a sorrowful tale, intently focusing on the pressures of a son following in the footsteps of his acclaimed father. A patriarch of inspiration to many. Allowing a tangible tense bond to illuminate the stars with despair and anguish. Pitt’s universally nuanced performance brings forward stoic mannerisms that allow McBride to feel these emotions. Minor glitches that break character, such as slamming the wall in frustration, showcase the purity of humanity within him.

Gray encompasses the plot around McBride. The lunar pirate raid, mayday rescue and crew brawl scenes, whilst inserting mainstream tendencies into a contemporary drama, were emblems of McBride’s emotions. Fear, rage and desperation respectively. A series of gestures that, again, hark back to humanity’s endurance.

The mildly engaging supporting cast, ranging from Jones, Sutherland and Negga, acting as stability for McBride. Stepping stones allowing him to find his father, as if fate was dictating his alignment. Narration, shifting between inner thoughts to exposition, was overused and irked me with its basic functionality. Hoytema’s cinematography could’ve elicited these unnecessary lines of dialogue from his beautiful imagery. And beautiful just doesn’t do it justice.

Immediately, from the iridescent opening shot, Hoytema takes hold. Utilising colours and shadows to produce the incarnation of life, what it means to see. The blue of Neptune, the red of Mars. Clashing tonalities resembling McBride’s emotions. Accompanied by Richter’s euphoric score and the almost ‘2001’ production design, and Ad Astra is technically a masterful piece of art. Gray’s conclusion is teetering on the edge of underwhelming, for me at least, with its rushed journey home that dissipated the simmering sorrow built exquisitely beforehand. The ending I personally would’ve desired, would be the ending no one wanted (but that’s life I guess…).

Regardless, the small criticisms here and there are subject to change upon an inevitable rewatch. Gray is fast becoming one of my favourite directors. He is a man who understands character. He acknowledges the obsession of man. Amalgamating life’s wondrously challenging hurdles into singular expressive characters. Ad Astra’s meditative and resonant pacing, whilst is sure to put many viewers off, ensures that loss and grief are captured wherever a soul may be. At home or in deep space. It never vanishes.