Ad Astra

Ad Astra (2019)

Directed by James Gray, screenplay by James Gray and Ethan Gross.

I’m in the midst of the madness that is my final undergraduate unit, a special screen studies research project that is quietly driving me to distraction at the moment. So, what better way to distract myself from writing about films than go to the movies!

Ad Astra was just the tonic I needed. Gorgeously shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Director of Photography for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Interstellar and Dunkirk among his many credits), this is a stunningly beautiful film that, in terms of framing and colourisation, owes a tremendous debt to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and narratively to Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’. From the opening, gut turning sequence, this is a visual feast.

In essence, this is a story of men told from an extreme male perspective and women are ethereal and clearly seen through the male gaze (Liv Tyler’s Eve) or pointedly asexual (Ruth Negga’s quietly understated Helen Lantos). The essential conflict here is between fathers and sons, and within Roy. The idea of buttoned up masculinity he inherited from his father is on clear display, and Roy’s ability to compartmentalise his feelings does nothing to help him (or any man) engage with or process the inner demons of his emotional life. The story is narrated throughout by Roy and while it helps at times having that inner voice, I found it strayed into some very on the nose musings, particularly in the last act. This wasn’t helped by some pacing issues in the second act that drew me out of the film in a fairly abrupt way.

Brad Pitt has never been high on my list of preferred actors but I really liked him in this. The sulky restraint he shows here as Roy McBride is reminiscent of his taciturn Jesse James in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford (2007), still far and away my favourite Pitt vehicle (if you haven’t seen it, just do it – you can thank me later!) But there is no room for Brad to be the grump when there’s the godfather of grouchiness, Tommy Lee Jones to contend with! As Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride, he just has to glower at the camera and I’m sold.

Despite its fairly obvious flaws this is still an enjoyable watch, and overall, I found it to be a surprisingly immersive film, helped tremendously by the Max Richter score. However, for those of you with a passion for science and particularly physics, try and put your knowledge on hold – a lot of the science doesn’t hold up to scrutiny – but it’s a fun and at times, quite thrilling ride!

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