Jack Bottomley, Media Correspondent

Review: Ad Astra

As we edge closer to the year’s end, the early frontrunners for early 2020 awards season are making themselves noticed and, hot off an enthusiastic performance at the Venice Film Festival among others, director James Gray’s (The Lost City of Z) space odyssey Ad Astra has floated to cinemas.

Starring Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, son of famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Ad Astra tells the story of a man following in his father’s footsteps.

One day though, U.S. Space Command contacts the notoriously steady-nerved Roy for a most unexpected - and top secret - expedition, to attempt to strike up contact with the long-dormant and lost “Lima Project”, headed by his - long thought deceased - father. Is his father alive as Command theorises? And how far will Roy go to complete his mission? As this assignment increasingly makes him question his life.

Far from being an action-packed space thriller, Gray’s film is a voyage of rumination. Lying somewhere in the stretch of space between uplifting and depressing, I am still unsure just how much I enjoyed Ad Astra but am certain that I was engaged by it.

Much has been made of the film’s slow pace and while it was methodical in relaying its narrative, it was nowhere near to the extent some have suggested. I was never bored and, dotted in-between its Gravity-esque opening scenes of catastrophe and the closing scenes of life re-evaluation, there are plenty of deep space sequences to grasp the attention and stun the senses.

The visuals are very well constructed, with an impressive number of set pieces that fill every inch of the big screen and are often remarkable to take in.

Even some scenes that don’t quite fit neatly or necessarily into the plot (a curiously distress beacon scene that feels taken from another film), are wondrous to watch thanks to the film’s consistently tremendous cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema, which is absolutely dazzlingly used, and the depth of the imagery conjured is rich and bewildering.

So much so I sometimes lost track - so to speak - of everything else, including a rather good score by Max Richter (which will no doubt be further appreciated by those interested in repeat viewings).

Taking in themes of loneliness and existentialism, this journey across the stars gives us plenty to think about but its central headspace is really all about the bond between father and son and how the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. It’s a patriarchal tale and as a result is driven by Pitt (lets call it ‘Brad Astra’!) and he is very good in a verbally restrained and emotionally expressive lead performance that powers this vessel.

Strong, if sometimes fleeting, support is offered by the ever great Ruth Negga (the best of all the supporting players), a grizzly Tommy Lee Jones and an endearing Donald Sutherland, although Liv Tyler sadly draws the short straw and is wasted in a very tiny part.

Ad Astra didn't move me like some other space-spanning dramas have and it seemed strange to see the finish's rather simple concluding statement (did Roy really need to travel so far to learn something so simple?) considering the contemplative build to something seemingly more but Gray’s direction is often spellbinding, the visuals astonishing and the film intriguing.

It’s a great piece of cinema and while I wouldn't rank it in the same company as others did and have (Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey), I feel it is a film that will strike different viewers in wildly different ways emotionally (especially those with complex relationships with dear old dad). And where some won't be able to dock with it, others will get lost in James Gray's space.

Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler
Release Date: Out Now