Ad Astra

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

👀 Theater

Written by: Ethan Gross; James Gray

Directed by: James Gray

Starring: Brad Pitt; Tommy Lee Jones; Ruth Negga; Liv Tyler; Donald Sutherland; John Ortiz; Natasha Lyonne

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures 



Ad Astra is not the increasingly familiar, inspiring saga of human achievement the marketing has been pitching it as. It’s something much more honest and intriguing — a terrifyingly lonely quest for truth that dares put us in our place and puts potential limits on our endeavors to “conquer” the Final Frontier.

Hauntingly beautiful and just plain haunting in many respects, Ad Astra (the title an abbreviation of the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra — “through hardships to the stars”) plots its moves deliberately and yet boldly, focusing not on the stars but rather the ultimate in strained relationships. It’s a grand star-strewn metaphor about a son’s physical and emotional search for the father who may or may not have abandoned him in the noble pursuit of his own, fatally unshakable beliefs — intelligent life exists somewhere in this vast chasm, I just know it dammit — one that traverses billions of miles, straddles a number of celestial bodies and asks some big, heady questions about our place in space along the way.

Co-written by director James Gray and Ethan Gross the film is very moody, swelling with so much melancholy and inner turmoil you just want to give it a hug, but this isn’t a pure mood piece. Ad Astra also has a comet of pure entertainment value streaking through it, this deliberately paced, profoundly ponderous sojourn constantly aware of its more plodding tendencies and therefore joltingly — and yet wonderfully fluidly — breaking itself up into episodic, exciting conflicts both man-made and space-provided: from incompetent leaders, raging baboons and pirates on the Moon, to Martian bureaucracy and the blue dusty rings of Neptune, everything and the floating kitchen sink is thrown in the direction of Brad Pitt, playing an emotionally compartmentalized Major on the hunt for his ultra absentee father, long thought to have perished as part of the ill-fated Lima Project, but new evidence suggests he’s not only alive but potentially the source of the devastating energy surges that have been throttling Earth for years.

The ruggedly handsome Pitt, one of the last of a dying breed of bonafide movie stars, becomes Roy McBride, a military man of Neil Armstrong-like unflappability and Rockefellerian royalty. The latter makes him uniquely qualified for a top-secret mission in an attempt to make contact with the Lima crew — namely his father, the revered H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) — while his inhuman ability to stay calm no matter the circumstances is proven in a white-knuckle spectacle of an opening, wherein a routine service job on Earth’s mighty space antenna is interrupted by one of those powerful energy surges, flinging bodies to their deaths and/or into low Earth orbit. (For the acrophobic and the vertigo-susceptible, it’s advised you look away during this scene.)

Ad Astra pairs its desperate, outward-bounding voyage with an intensely personal journey inward, a familiar dichotomy somewhat alleviated of cliché thanks to the committed and understated performances. As an exploration of masculine pride and guilt the movie proves toughness, strength and conviction are tragically finite resources in the vast reaches of the Universe’s foyer. Pitt and Jones, consummate actors ever, here are committed to going cold so much you’d think their body temperatures dropped as a result. They create a tension between parent and child that truly matches their inhospitable environment. There’s a tussle near Neptune — and damn it if it’s not one of the most pathetic things you’ll ever watch. That’s a compliment to the movie, to the direction.

The performances are just outstanding. Pitt’s in particular is a major factor in Ad Astra‘s sobering vision of not just our fragility but our arrogance in space. Behind Pitt’s eyes is a frightened boy shook well before he ever took flight. Jones as Clifford, a shell of his former self and yet somehow more statuesque and brutally resolute in his objective. These two impact the movie like the energy waves battering our Solar System and our planet.

It’s just unfortunate that comes at the expense of others, such as Liv Tyler, playing the earthbound Eve, who can only get a word in edgewise in dream-sequences and flashbacks. Meanwhile Ruth Negga‘s Helen Lantos, a 100% Martian-born native who has only been to Earth once as a child, plays an integral role in the emotional maturation (or deterioration, take your pick) of Roy’s mission. And Donald Sutherland is an actor I enjoy so much five minutes with him is both welcomed and nowhere near enough. He plays Clifford’s former colleague, an aging Colonel who helps Roy get from Earth to the Moon, where the pair will confront the true cynicism of our species head on, where Mad Max-inspired chaos reigns.

The specifics of this all-time dysfunctional relationship must, almost unfairly, compete for your attention with the unforgettable imagery provided by DoP Hoyt van Hoytema, who, in searing both dreamscapes and nightmarish visions into your consciousness, may have just eclipsed his own already ridiculous benchmark set in the 2014 galaxy-spanning Interstellar (an obvious visual and to some degree thematic forebear of Ad Astra, along with the likes of Apocalypse Now and 2001). If there is any reason to see this movie, it’s the opportunity to watch a certifiable genius — a modern Bonestell — work his magic.

“I just need some space to think.”

Moral of the Story: Director James Gray is on record saying he aspired to create “the most realistic depiction of space travel ever put on film,” and with the help of Ad Astra‘s understated but brilliant performances and the typically mind-blowing work of Swedish cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema, he certainly seems to have achieved that. As a movie of extremes and limitations, this certainly isn’t a populist movie. Ad Astra is a colder, harsher vision of our cosmic reality. Maybe I’m just a cold person, because this is going to go down as one of my favorites all year (not to mention it features one of the best promotional tags I’ve come across in some time). 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

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17 thoughts on “Ad Astra

  1. Pingback: Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019 | Thomas J

    • Cool man, yeah it’s a movie that’s straight up my alley. Big ideas, moving performances and some astounding visuals and a haunting score to wrap it all up. I just loved this movie!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure I truly -loved- it as much as you and keith – some of what happens near the end struct me as unrealistic – but I really really liked it and need to see it again. Like you said, all those elements, plus it being sci-fi, is right up my alley too. Pity its gone from cinemas, I’d love to watch it again on the big screen. I look forward to it hitting the net tho, my TV is a decent size. I’m about publish my thoughts about it bro 🙂

        BTW did you know that one reason for the score being` so immersive is cos Richter (sp?) used samples from the Voyager satellites? How cool is that!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Month in Review: September ’19 | Thomas J

  3. Great review and (as we have talked about) we definitely see it through a similar lens. I see a lot dismissing this as just a ‘daddy issues’ movie. I don’t know, I got A LOT more out of it than that. I loved how it digs into its main character and really conveys Roy’s internal struggles. It also has more to say about us (humanity) than many are giving it credit for. LOVE this movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would have to agree. It’s far more than a story about father-son tensions. And the dismissiveness inherent in that specific description “daddy issues” really bugs me.

      Ad Astra is an intriguing examination of scientific progress, aims a pointed jab at the cynicism of commercialism/capitalism (Subway on the Moon lol!) and also has this vague spiritual undertone as well in the father-son dynamic (something I think you pointed out). These were all things I wanted to get into in my review, but in the interest of not making this a 15+ paragraph review — something I know NO one wants to read 😉 — I tried delving more into the mood/atmosphere and specifically Pitt/TLJ’s arcs. I can’t wait to see this thing again.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a naturally cold, aloof, kind of naturally pessimistic person too who sometimes wishes that I weren’t this way (or maybe just that it took less effort/awkwardness to not be this way—not who I am at the core lol!). And I gotta say, Pitt’s character really resonated with me a ton; man I was hooked from the get-go with this. Wonderful piece Tom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • thanks a lot Mark!

      I feel like Ad Astra certainly speaks to a certain aspect of humanity — our arrogance, self-assuredness, cynicism. It leads the characters to a place that’s not only physically and brutally cold but emotionally so as well. It’s a pretty personal voyage, one that I was, like you, hooked from minute one. This was a great adventure. I love how Ad Astra blends the visual grandeur of Interstellar with the pragmatism of First Man.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I thought the visuals were pretty spectacular and there are some bits here and there that really captivated me. However, by and large, I found the son (Brad Pitt) with “daddy issues” to be a dull story on which to hang an entire plot. I really enjoyed your review because it helped me understand what people see in this film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me it’s the specific way they tease out the details of their relationship and how the ultimate truth is finally delivered. And of course it helps enormously who they cast in those roles. TLJ doesn’t have to do much to affect a powerful persona. I found him just brutal(ly) effective here. Pitt, too. I really sympathized with him, more than I did Gosling’s version of Neil Armstrong to be honest. First Man was even harder to get emotionally invested in (granted I bought into it too, mostly because of the stunningly technical detail, esp the Lunar sequence).

      Movies like this I really love because so many people have taken so many different things away from it. It’s a “discussion” film — which, and I know I’m relatively new at this, feels like a rarity in the cinematic landscape today.


  6. Ad Astra is definitely one of the better films of this year – not that this has been a particualrly good year for film, to be honest. Its just a pity that its flaws might have been easily fixed, but I suspect some of it (the endless narration for one) was due to studio pressure. These intellectual films don’t sell as well as the exciting thrill rides of Marvel etc, and the relative failure of BR2049 to engage audiences must have been a concern for anyone making a film like Ad Astra.

    Having thought about it, if I were Gray I would have dropped Liv Tyler’s character pretty much completely other than the initial flashback. Its hokey when she turns up at the end as if she’s been just waiting for Pitts character to come to his senses (and painfully parallels her character in Armageddon too, raising further concern about her actual casting). I’d have preferred Pitt to have come to Earth and started his life anew through what he has learned, maybe show him years later with some other woman and with kids of his own. A perfect family, a good father, everything he didn’t have with his own parents.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gotta say that’s a better pitch for the ending than the one we get. I didn’t really buy that last scene. Though with some time passed now I think Liv Tyler is in it just enough to give you that “glimpse of paradise,” or it was enough for me to get that impression. Still though, it was a little unfulfilling the way that was carried out.

      And yeah, it’s really depressing me the state of movies these days. I fucking hate the MCU now, but I don’t blame Robert Downey Jr for being so good in the Iron Man role, Mark #1. That franchise really took off, and of course there are all the sequels and prequels to IPs and shit today that just flood the marketplace. Maybe that’s what subconsciously fueled my praise for this movie — it just feels different (and to my knowledge it is an original story).


  7. Nice, man. You did it. I can’t say I enjoyed this movie as much as you, but I prefer this style of filmmaking as well – even with the coldness, isolation, and self-seeking. Cheers and bravo! This is the best season for new movies 🙂


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