REVIEW: ‘Ad Astra’ is in the upper echelon of the space adventure genre

A star studded cast like this deserves to be on a grand scale film across the stars. That’s what we get with the new sci-fi “Ad Astra.”

The movie takes place in the fairly distant future, with mankind now able travel to the Solar System’s inner planets regularly and launch long range expeditions beyond the asteroid belt. The film follows Roy McBride, an experienced and fearless astronaut working for the United States’ Space Com.

However, Roy still lives in the shadow of his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a great, accomplished American space explorer who went on a venture to the outer reaches of the solar system near Neptune. The expedition was lost, though, decades ago, with the crew written off as dead. When power surges begin hitting the earth generated from a powerful space ship engine, Roy is tasked with finding out if his father is still alive and if so, if it’s the lost ship starting these power surges.

“Ad Astra” is a wonderful space epic featuring both an expansive, large scale story and a small, personal tale. Regarding the former, Roy’s journey takes him billions of miles across space and over the course of the venture the audience learns that as much as humanity has changed, it’s also stayed the same in ways, for better and for worse.

It’s a fantastic dive into themes of humanity’s push for experimentation and exploration, as well as our species’ struggles against each other. For example, in “Ad Astra” the nations of Earth are still divided and compete for resources on other worlds. There’s a sort of tragedy on display in the movie, where even though humanity has reached new heights, it’s unable to escape some of the issues we have today.

Meanwhile, there’s the personal journey of Roy. Along with being a sci-fi flick, this is also very much a character study of a man who seems to fear almost nothing except for relationships. This is shown through bits and pieces of his strained relationship with his significant other Eve (Liv Tyler) as well as his memories of the time he spent without his father.

In addition to what the audience learns through dialogue between characters and what’s shown on screen, “Ad Astra” also features a narration almost akin to what can be found in noir pictures. The narration is very complementary, especially during sequences where Roy is alone and it’s benefited by Pitt’s somber portrayal of the character.

The narration wasn’t necessary for every single scene, and maybe could have been cut out in a few places, but for the most part it’s a strong addition to explore Roy.

AdAstraBlog
Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The only area where “Ad Astra” really stumbles is the disconnect between the first and second halves. There’s a tonal shift that takes place in the second act and it feels just a bit too disjointed. It’s certainly not enough to derail the movie, in fact as a whole it still works absolutely fine, but this was still noticeable.

Of course one of the biggest positives for “Ad Astra” was its loaded cast. Just a recap, the movie stars Pitt and Ruth Nega, both Oscar nominees, Jones, an Academy Award winner, and Golden Globe winner Donald Sutherland. While the latter three have less screentime than Pitt, they’re all significantly valuable to the picture and make a major impact in their scenes. Jones is especially fantastic in his role.

Pitt, though, is of course the star and reminds viewers why he is one of the best actors of his generation. While being the ideal “American hero astronaut,” Roy is a troubled character both because of his inability to connect with others and his experiences in deadly situations. Pitt portrays this so well with a subtle, melancholic performance. There’s a depth to his acting that completes the picture.

Credit also has to go to director and writer James Gray as well as co-writer Ethan Gross. Their efforts created a clear, cohesive vision. Thanks to both, the film never feels convoluted and the way it explores themes doesn’t come across as pretentious or too on the nose. Rather, because of the relatable interpersonal relationship of father and son, “Ad Astra” is able to give an honest look at the human condition.

A ton of praise has to go to the visual crew, too. Hoyte Van Hoytema, who already has an impressive filmography including “Dunkirk,” “Interstellar,” “Her” and “The Fighter” returns again with Oscar worthy work again. He, and the rest of the crew, do breathtaking work in creating the visuals of humanity’s space travels. From an opening scene overlooking the Earth from a communications tower, to a breathtaking sequence with lunar rovers on the Moon, Hoytema’s work can blow audiences away.

The use of lighting and color is just as important as the camera work, too. Hoytema and the entire special effects crew were able to make fascinating moments on Mars and incredible scenes near Neptune.

“Ad Astra” maybe could have cut a few pieces of narration and bridged the first and second halves a bit better. But overall, this is one of the best films of 2019 and earns a seat at the table with other great space adventure movies. 4.8 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

I'm a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer in Minnesota, and I also have a passion for the art of film. This passion led me to start writing about film in 2008. From 2008-2016 I wrote pieces at my own website, After the Movie Reviews. Then, from 2016-May 2018, my write-ups were featured on AreaVoices, a blog network run by Forum Communications Company. Today, I write film reviews and other pieces here on Word Press. More about me: I'm a 2009 graduate of Rainy River College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University in Moorhead. At MSU, I studied journalism and film. Outside of movies, I enjoy sports, video games, anime and craft beers.

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