Ad Astra (2019) Science fiction film Ad Astra (2019), directed by James Gray, is a film following a seasoned astronaut as he discovers more about his presumed dead father who was lost in a space expedition long ago. As he learns more about his father, he realizes that he must venture out into space to find him and to attempt to stop a mysterious power surge threatening Earth and the solar system. The film aims to explore a father-son relationship in the context of space travel and the question of whether we are alone in the universe. The story opens with text onscreen informing us that it is the near future and that humanity has expanded into the stars in search of life. It then cuts to what can be perceived to be an interview or evaluation of the main character, Major Roy McBride, who speaks about his feelings and experiences. As his testimonial switches between dialogue and voiceover, visual exposition informs the audience of his background, including his relationship with his wife—briefly—and his current occupation. McBride is an astronaut who works on Earth’s “Space Needle” that broadcasts into the solar system in search for other intelligent life. His father, Clifford McBride, is currently believed to be dead after embarking on a deep space expedition to the edges of the solar system looking for signs of life. The two are estranged, as Clifford left for his expedition when Roy was sixteen, and all Roy has left of his father are his update transmissions from his ship.
The film takes place in the near future, where it is shown that humanity has managed to make the moon a travel destination, though, unlike other movies depicting future space exploration, humans are still divided by country and fight beyond Earth just as we do on our own planet. Mars is also depicted as habitable, complete with military and research bases. Eventually, the movie’s setting moves to space itself, with Roy McBride embarking on a journey towards Neptune in search for his father. A central conflict of the film revolves around Roy’s father, who has been determined as a dead national hero for a long time. Roy isn’t sure about his feelings for his father, especially after he learns that the army’s space division—who were in charge of his father’s expedition—believe he’s still alive. Most of the film focuses on the two’s relationship, with the added background conflict that there are mysterious power surges coming from Neptune that threaten to destroy Earth—and they might be due to Clifford McBride.
The camera techniques and cinematography are incredible; well-designed shots allowed this film to take its place alongside other credited space films in terms of the visual depiction of the story. Most of the film consists of close ups on the main character’s face, meant to place the audience in a position where we can determine his inner thoughts. The rest of the film is composed of mostly wide shots that are either stunning setting shots of space or of artistically pleasing and aesthetically sound mood shots. A few that come to mind include a perfectly symmetrical shot of Roy in a darkened hallway filled with only red-orange light—appropriate, seeing that he is on Mars at the time—and a shot of Roy in his astronaut suit approaching over the horizon; at first the sun is what occupies the center of the screen, but Roy’s silhouette soon takes over and completely blocks the sun out, all accompanied by the reddish haze of Mars. VFX only adds to the beautiful visuals, enhancing where needed but not overused to the point where it is obvious and takes the audience away from the story. The score serves to improve the film, creating suspenseful moments and building tension when needed. Some parts of the score are truly impactful to the film, but others are somewhat lacking and, although they didn’t take away from the experience, there is room for improvement. Sound design didn’t stand out nor was it a detriment; purposeful moments of silence, for instance, during the lunar vehicle chase on the moon, do work to create a specific mood that benefits the overall experience. The performances of the cast enhances the film, highlighting the true conflict between father and son, as well as inner conflicts that both face. Brad Pitt as Roy McBride fantastically portrays the inner emotions of his character, which is perpetuated by the extreme amount of time he spent in close-up. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Clifford McBride, effortlessly illustrates the character's determination and commitment to the mission, to the point of tragedy. The characters' lack of interaction for most of the film doesn't deter the actors from building an understandable and complex relationship between father and son.
The strengths of the film relates mostly to the technical production, with superb cinematography, VFX, lighting, production design, and editing. The level of detail paid toward the creation of the experience is incredible, there was not one thing out of place throughout the film. However, no amount of breathtaking visuals can distract from the film’s ultimate weakness: the writing. Although there is little dialogue, even less of it is actually essential to the film, much of the plotline is gained either through visuals or through soundbytes heard from newsreels or transmissions. Yet the dialogue is not the true problem; what severely impacts the experience of this deep-space drama is the repetitive voiceover that continues to occur at seemingly random times to introduce information that can be gained without the help of Brad Pitt’s tenor telling the audience exactly how his character feels. After the first few expositive voiceovers, it becomes a tired pattern that takes away from Pitt’s onscreen performance. There is barely the chance to even make out the character’s face in frame before the voiceover cuts in, destroying the opportunity for the audience to discern the character’s emotions for themselves. There is nothing that was gained through the voiceover that cannot be communicated through more creative and interesting means. Another issue is the film’s lack of understanding about its own characters. Clifford McBride's resolution fails to fit the character's values after so clearly being defined by his drive to complete his mission, and is further worsened by his lack of a development arc. The film also attempts to make the character of Roy’s wife a part of his internal conflict, but barely mentions her. She appears once at the beginning and once at the end, but an oddly placed and seemingly purposeless montage of quick clips flashed onscreen in the middle of the film only adds confusion to the plot, not another conflict to be resolved. The film’s failure to develop the estranged couple's relationship reveals that there should be a better conflict or elimination of the conflict as a whole. By leaving it as a half-formed idea, it only takes away from the main conflicts that the McBride faces. Though the movie had its flaws, Gray generally manages to get the purpose across: a commentary on father-son relationships and the human feeling of being alone. The use of contrast between the main characters’ reaction to being alone at the beginning of the film—Roy informing us that he likes to be alone, while his father is constantly searching for other life forms to alleviate his fear and confirm that humanity isn’t alone—only to resolve the film with Clifford’s acceptance of humans’ lonely status and Roy learning that he would rather not be alone does portray the growth that each character undergoes through their respective experiences and their final meeting together. While not achieved in the most effective way, the purpose of the film is still communicated clearly and is received by the audience. This 2001: A Space Odyssey wannabe falls undesirably short of its goals as it overlooks the use of visual storytelling as the primary conveyor of plot—a method heavily utilized by well-credited deep-space operettas that this film tries to be. Instead, it relies on simple telling via voiceover rather than using innovation to illustrate the plot through indirect means. Furthermore, the film’s inability to understand its own characters and their motivations leaves one to question whether the character development shown by the end truly fits within their character, and if their growth is even plausible given what has occurred. While the film’s premise truly was promising, the concept itself engaging, and the visuals beyond par, the flaws of the film were too great for the strengths of the film to uphold. Thus, Ad Astra, while far from the worst film set in space, fails to wow with anything more than a few well-designed outer space shots.