By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Ad Astra is a stylish, fascinating and meditative journey on the horrors of loneliness and depression that sticks with you even if it occasionally gets a little too Hollywood. Brad Pitt brings everything to this role – a career best performance.
Written and directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant), Ad Astra sees astronaut Roy McBride on a mission to confront his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who on the brink of madness, has unleashed a series of lethal electrical surges from a deep space station near Neptune, wreaking havoc on Earth and the rest of the solar system.
Ad Astra is a gorgeous and harrowing look at crippling depression and our efforts to suppress it to get the job done. McBride, who has seemingly mastered the art of bottling everything up (so much so that even his marriage has failed), seems the perfect fit to be hurled into space on a somewhat suicidal mission.
Pitt is remarkable in the role and trudges from scene to scene barely capable of holding back his epic sadness for the constant, and I mean CONSTANT, psychological evaluations which the astronaut is subjected to at every spare moment. The ‘smile and keep your head up’ motto of modern society resonates strong in this film – as if there is no one left that actually feels in this future.
Director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Interstellar) artfully takes us through McBride’s very personal journey with a series of stunning but atypical shots for a space movie. Everything is observed through a smoky haze, as if through the eyes of a dementia patient.
McBride’s journey also elegantly unveils a not-too-distant future that looks eerily familiar. The Moon is more or less colonised and resembles a monstrous airport complete with McDonald’s, Applebees and more. There’s also a thrilling moon rover chase sequence involving pirates which is absolutely jaw-dropping.
But it’s in a station deep underground on Mars that McBride finally starts to crack under the emotional strain of such a mission and daring double-crosser Helen Lantos, played by the wonderful Ruth Negga, begins to change things up a bit.
Ad Astra’s finale may disappoint some as it somewhat loses its bitter edge to something a little more sentimental and Hollywood, and its occasionally frustrating pseudoscience. However, there is something incredibly haunting about the station on Neptune and the wide-angle shots of the pulsating surge device, which resembles a sort of brain cortex.
There’s certainly enough here to please most, and I find myself still thinking about the film even now. It feels more Apocalypse Now than Interstellar, and I like that. The cast is also fantastic. Accompanying Pitt is Liv Tyler as his estranged wife glimpsed only through random video messages when McBride is at his lowest, Donald Sutherland as a an old friend of his father’s, and a very surprising cameo from Orange is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne.
Ad Astra is now showing in Czech cinemas. Go see it in IMAX if you can.