As the genre’s name would suggest, science fiction, at its core, is a spectrum that ranges between the definition of science and fiction.
Films on the fiction end tend to be more adventurous in their plot. “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “The Terminator” can be found on this end of the spectrum. On the opposite, there are sci-fi films that are more based in reality, such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Martian” and “Ex Machina.”
When it comes to “Ad Astra,” the latest film from director James Gray (“The Lost City of Z”), the goal was to make it as far on the real-world end of that spectrum as possible. Gray stated at the Toronto International Film Festival that he wanted to make the film “the most realistic depiction of space travel that's been put in a movie,” which is a lofty goal.
While I cannot speak to how scientifically accurate the film is (I’m pretty much the opposite of a STEM major), what I can say is that, with “Ad Astra,” Gray has crafted one of the most interesting movies of the year and arguably one of the best science-fiction films of the decade.
“Ad Astra,” which is Latin for “to the stars,” is set in the near future, and it follows the journey of an astronaut named Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) as he travels across the solar system to solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance. About 30 years prior to the film’s beginning, McBride’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) was the captain of the first manned mission to Neptune. The original crew hasn’t been heard from in well over a decade, but now there are strange energy waves with massive power surges coming from Neptune that threaten life on Earth.
Every detail of this film not only works but excels in its mission.
Firstly, the plot of “Ad Astra” was incredibly written and directed by Gray and Ethan Gross, who co-wrote the script.
The film respects its audience and trusts them to be able to follow along with its events. It doesn’t spoon-feed exposition about its characters or events; it allows the audience to watch and put the puzzle together on its own. When there is exposition, it is woven into the plot organically, usually through mission assignments. For the most part, though, the audience is able to follow the plot and figure out what is happening by the way its characters interact with each other and react to their situations.
While the events of the film are what provide the sense of thrill and excitement, the heart of it lies in Pitt’s character and his relationship with his father and space.
McBride became an astronaut because of his father. He devoted his life to exploring space, and he forged a glowing reputation of his own. He is able to keep calm and persevere through the toughest of scenarios, but the hostility of space and his own inner conflict about leaving his life behind on Earth have their own effects on his mental health. “Ad Astra” explores what these effects are and what the results are on McBride’s psyche. It highlights him as a human being juxtaposed against the vastness of the universe. He’s just a man, yet the fate of the solar system is on his shoulders.
Pitt was able to convey the complex emotions of McBride while also making the character seem somewhat distant. It’s a subtle performance that doesn’t feature a lot of big moments you’d expect to see in an Oscar reel, but it’s one of Pitt’s best to date. By avoiding turning the character into a bombastic or charismatic hero, Pitt made him more down-to-Earth and relatable, which allows the audience to become more emotionally invested in him and his mission.
Not only does “Ad Astra” excel in its plot, themes and performances, but it's a technical marvel as well.
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography never failed to be awe-inspiring. The score by Max Richter was simple, but it worked wonders when it came to creating the atmosphere of the film and the production design, which had the ships and bases look worn-down and used, and made the whole film feel as if it were truly happening in a future that will one day be our reality.
“Ad Astra” was outstanding.
It’s a film that undoubtedly deserves to be in the conversation about the greatest and most realistic science-fiction films of the 21st century, alongside “Interstellar,” “Arrival” and “The Martian.” “Ad Astra” is intellectual, exciting, challenging and emotional. It’s the kind of sci-fi film that makes you fall in love with the genre all over again. It’s far-and-away one of the best films 2019 has had to offer, and I honestly can’t wait to see it again.