“Ad Astra” review by Alex and Nate Blake

Alex: 

I was super skeptical when I saw the first trailer for Ad Astra. It seemed like just another space movie in a decade that has been saturated with them. I was equally as worried that it would just be an Interstellar knock off with so-so visual effects that could never compare to Gravity. I could not have been further from the truth in these worries.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in “the near future.” We soon learn he is a bit of a legacy as his father, Dr. H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was one of the most trailblazing and revered astronauts until he went missing while on a mission. The assumption was that he was dead. However, new information reveals things may not be as everyone had assumed. The story follows Roy as he seeks out the truth about what happened to his father.

This experience really wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. The trailer sold it as an action movie. And I get it, that’s what you have to do now to get people to go to the theater. However, this is very much not an action film. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some action scenes, but overall that is not what the film is about. It is much more about Roy’s struggle with his own uncertainty and emotions. The most surprising thing was Roy’s struggle with his masculinity throughout his journey. I read a review before we went to the theater last night that discussed this element and I was definitely skeptical. But, once again, I was proven wrong. The examination of masculinity and the fear of becoming our parents (not you mom, you’re great!) really made the viewer look within themselves.

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The technical aspects of the film were also quite impressive. I was concerned that compared to other space movies that have come out in recent years it just wouldn’t measure up. Again though, I was wrong. Don’t tell Nathan. As far as he is concerned, I am always right. The opening sequence, while somewhat unbelievable, is masterfully shot and it really sets the tone for the rest of the experience. There is one part in particular when Roy makes it to Saturn that is just visually stunning. It’s not only the scenes set in space though. There are plenty of shots that take place on Earth or within space crafts that really create tension for the viewer. I don’t know about you, but films set in space always give me anxiety. It could be the use of silence or maybe it’s a fear of the unknown, but James Gray does a magnificent job of slowly building anxiety in the viewer over time. The score, done by Max Richter, also really contributes to that anxiety overall.

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While I really enjoyed the overall experience of this film, I do have some qualms.  There were a couple aspects, particularly accidents that happened, where it seemed somewhat unbelievable that someone would survive. However, because this isn’t an action film, it really did not negatively impact the story that much. With that being said, the action scenes that were included seemed unnecessary. There are two in particular that you could completely remove from the narrative and it would not change the outcome of the film. It really seemed like a way to pander to audiences. The conclusion is also rather meandering when it didn’t need to be. It struggled to find a concise ending in favor of unneeded resolution.

With all of that being said, and without spoiling anything, the twists and turns that the narrative takes are really worth going to the theater for. Even if you are not a huge Brad Pitt fan, his performance is something to be admired on the big screen. While audiences don’t seem to be enjoying this film as much as critics, I beg of you to give it a chance. You won’t regret it.

Nate: 

I agree that this is another film with a bad trailer. It left the impression that this is an action movie. While there are some stunning action sequences, they are brief. I disagree, however, with your view that they are unnecessary. It’s difficult to defend them without getting in to spoilers, but there isn’t a specific action sequence I would remove. That said, the film is tense, but most of the fireworks are psychological. Though visually it will draw comparison to films like Gravity and Interstellar, all I kept thinking about while watching it was Apocalypse Now. The film swaps the jungles of Vietnam for outer space, albeit for a much more personal journey into darkness.

Brad Pitt is excellent in the role. He’s every bit as distant and hard to crack as Neil Armstrong (as portrayed by Ryan Gosling) in last year’s First Man. Pitt’s character is, however, many more years removed from familial tragedy than Armstrong was during his mission to the moon. He has decades worth of conflicting feelings about what happened to his father, many buried, and the script is patient about peeling back layers of grief and confusion, which leads to a final act that is both rewarding and immensely satisfying.

Tommy Lee Jones is also brilliant in a relatively brief role that still looms over every scene. It’s always interesting to look at casting choices for fathers/sons or mothers/daughters. Until watching Ad Astra, I never would have though of Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Pitt sharing the screen as father and son, but I bought it.

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If Ad Astra wins an Oscar for visual effects in February 2020, it would be the fourth film set largely in space to win that honor this decade. It may be early in the season, but it will be an uphill climb for any other film from this year to claim that category. It’s Ad Astra’s Oscar to lose.

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This is a moody, thoughtful and deliberate film. The slow pacing and at times emotional distance from the characters will be off putting for many audiences. Almost everything about it worked for me though. It’s nowhere near my favorite sci-fi film in recent memory, but it’s a journey that’s tough to shake. The stunning visuals alone make this worth checking out. It’s also the kind of story that will likely age well. Alex can attest that I’ve spent the last six years complaining about the speechifying at the end of Gravity and the last five wishing Interstellar was just a little less sappy and sentimental. Those may both be more accessible films, but their intermittent moments of cheese have provided fodder for justifiable backlash.

While the tone and dialogue are near perfection, Ad Astra isn’t flawless. It seems we both rolled our eyes a bit at the accidents key characters manage to survive, particularly the admittedly impressive sequence that opens the film. There is also a fight scene in the second act that was necessary but accompanied by music that draws unwanted attention to itself. It’s the one weak spot in an otherwise minimalist and chilling score by Max Richter. Finally, the ending goes on a bit too long. Say what you will about Gravity, but it ended exactly where it should have. Ad Astra struggles to decide when enough resolution is enough, providing many details we didn’t need. That said, the journey up to those final couple minutes is mesmerizing, and you must see this on a big screen.

 

 

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