Venice 2019: James Gray Goes on a Trip into Deep Space in 'Ad Astra'
by Alex Billington
August 29, 2019
What is out there? What is waiting for us in the stars? James Gray's long-awaited sci-fi adventure Ad Astra has finally arrived. This time Gray takes us out into deep space on a journey with an astronaut named Roy McBride, set in the near future when we've colonized the Moon and Mars but have only just started to reach the edges of our own solar system. McBride is sent on a mission to find his missing father, hoping to figure out what's causing electrical storms wreaking havoc on Earth. This lonely, slow burn space movie is an awe-inspiring, magnificent journey into the stars. As a big time space geek, it ticks every last box. It's sensational to watch, meticulously realized and meditative, more melancholic than exciting but still a stellar experience.
Gray's Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut whose greatest skill is never letting his heart-rate go over 80. He's calm, collected, always capable and insusceptible to panic. Much of the movie features voiceover of Pitt narrating his own experience. He's recruited for a top secret mission to travel all the way to Neptune to rendezvous with a research vessel sent that far out in hopes of clearly our sun's magnetic field and searching for life in the universe. The movie moves smoothly from one moment to the next, letting the dramatic space travel moments play out while surrounding us with that loneliness of space. It doesn't reinvent the genre, but it doesn't need to anyway. And it doesn't take us "further than we've ever been before", but it's still sci-fi at its best. The attention-to-detail in all aspects of space travel are perfect, not much to even nitpick with it.
After my first experience with this movie, I will say it was well worth the wait. And I am very much looking forward to diving into repeat viewings – especially on the big screen because there's so much grandeur in the visuals. That's expected, of course, following up after modern sci-fi like Gravity and Interstellar, but Gray still gives us some truly stunning space travel visuals that he has taken years to hone to perfection. It's a stunning, meditative, contemplative voyage into deep space. I love how it moves so smoothly - wasting no time taking us from planet to planet, plunging us further into the great void of space. It is ultimately about loneliness, and learning about what matters most. Many space movies deal with this, but Gray puts a strong emphasis on that heavy loneliness and lets Pitt carry all the weight. In fact, it's not even really about space.
The more I think about it in the hours after first watching, the more I realize that James Gray has made a sci-fi movie to address the human condition on Earth. On this planet. By taking us on a journey through our solar system. Ad Astra deals with themes of love and loss, and reminds me of The Fifth Element or Her or Interstellar in that sense. It doesn't end up the way I wanted, but I still admire what Gray is trying to say with this movie - that love matters most and we have to solve our own problems. I'm sure there will be more to say, more to discuss, more to analyze after I see it a few more times, and I am looking forward to getting back into it again. It's packed with plenty of sci-fi references, and beautiful scenes to watch over and over. And as a big space geek, this is the kind of film I relish seeing in the cinema. It's glorious big screen cinema.
The journey wouldn't be complete without the breathtaking score by Max Richter, which compliments all the gorgeous shots from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. It's not just about camera placement, it's about making everything look and feel authentic, like Pitt is actually out there on this voyage. With the sun lighting up the stars, glaring at us, and reflecting on every surface. There's some subtle aspects of the near future setting that also add just a bit of extra depth. Gray is known for the exactness of his frames, and while the voiceover is steady and dependable, the rest of it is an unforgettable experience. I hope others love it as much as I do, especially space geeks, and I hope others are moved by the ending. The true potential of sci-fi.
Alex's Venice 2019 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing