Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) – whose heart rate, even in the face of death, has never recorded over 80BPM – is one of the world’s most respected astronauts. His reputation is matched only by his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer who disappeared at the outer rim of the solar system 16 years ago. Clifford was presumed dead; that is until cataclysmic power surges begin to hit Earth and are traced back to his last location, the result of a dark matter experiment gone awry. Suspecting him to still be alive, the United States Air Force charge the steely Roy with contacting his father in an attempt to end the bursts.
From a technical viewpoint, Ad Astra deserves ample celebration. The film’s sound design and cinematography coalesce perfectly in key set-pieces, riffing largely to the same note as the likes of High Life and Gravity. Director James Gray and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema know exactly where to hold on a claustrophobic close-up and when to expand into a breath-taking wide shot. They manipulate this juxtaposition to great visual success, simultaneously capturing the swathing beauty of outer space and the breathless claustrophobia of an astronaut’s helmet.
Of course, Ad Astra is only the latest in the last half-decade’s deluge of auteur-driven, existentially fuelled space dramas; the likes of First Man, Interstellar and the prior mentioned High Life offer just a few examples of the recent trend to focus on man’s inner space while exploring the expansive outer.
However, Pitt’s performance still leaves much to be desired. Perhaps the bar is too high given that the actor delivered one of the best roles of his career with Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood so recently. He sells Roy’s conflictual emotions and motivations well enough, but lacks more of a spark – even though there are plenty of opportunities to do so. When it’s not ham-fisted with sectarianism, the material’s good.
Any personal accolades for Pitt would come somewhat as a surprise, but on the whole, Ad Astra adds an intriguing, technically marvellous addition to James Gray’s filmography. As with First Man and Gravity prior, it feels a sturdy awards season candidate to look out for already.
Reviewed at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Ad Astra will be released in UK cinemas on 18 September.
|What||Ad Astra review|
18 Sep 19 – 18 Sep 20, TIMES VARY
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|