‘Ad Astra’ Serves Dazzling Sci-Fi Spectacle Amid a Compelling Examination of the Male Psyche
Wild, unruly and stunning, the film takes a voyage through space but remains an intimate character study.
It seems like an annual tradition that a critically-acclaimed sci-fi from an auteur will be released to either adoration or derision or both from a general audience. Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and Arrival all earned acclaim and were generally well-received by audiences, but then Blade Runner 2049 and Annihilation faltered at the box office and the latter did not even receive international distribution, instead being bailed out by Netflix while a studio reluctant to even release the film barely marketed it at all. I think the box office results of Ad Astra will be carefully examined by studios to see whether this genre is worthy of being financed as original films’ performance at the box office continues to trend downward. What’s also interesting is that this film is a holdover from 20th Century Fox—now Disney owned—which could be completely reshaped itself under new management. Ad Astra’s release was pushed back numerous times which was concerning as it could have been a sign of studio apprehension, as the film is a clear financial film relying on star power, word of mouth audience response and marketing. The September release date the film was given was clearly a clever choice however, as only one franchise heavyweight was released, so it was mostly a level playing field between mid-budget original films, which was quite refreshing and I hope becomes the case more often. The film has performed better than expected, crossing more than 100 million worldwide, but it still stands to lose money, it’s box office performance similar albeit slightly better than another space-based film, First Man. These auteur-driven films go against typical Hollywood filmmaking, but it’s saddening to see such a lukewarm audience reception for a more creative take on the genre and going against convention.
Ad Astra’s wily and at times absurd narrative journey has polarised audiences, and I have seen many complaints about scientific inaccuracies. These are really beside the point, as they’re far from the focus of the film, which is actually a character study of a male dealing with issues left by his absentee father, which is established immediately by Brad Pitt’s grounded intra-diegetic voice-over. Pitt’s portrayal of protagonist Roy McBride is of a stoic man living in isolation and self-sabotage. The film itself opens on McBride’s wife leaving him and we see how he lives in a state of disconnect, and this is true for the majority of the film. There are a lot of spectacular and somewhat absurd events that happen in the film, and while it’s thrilling to see a moon buggy battle sequence tonally similar to that in Mad Max: Fury Road, the focus always pulls back to our protagonist, who remains unmoved throughout much of the narrative. The only time we see McBride moved is when there is mention of his father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) who abandoned him to and his mother pursue a mission to the end of the solar system while he was a child. Much of Roy’s issues surrounding his emptiness are a result of his father’s abandonment and McBride’s perpetual state of calmness—he always maintains a low resting heartbeat even when in danger—is threatened when he is presented with the opportunity to find him as he’s filled with long term resentment and emotional anguish, which Pitt portrays perfectly. McBride is completely undeterred in finding his father to finally have the confrontation he’s been waiting for throughout his life and every narrative obstacle that is presented to him has no interest for him. As he discovers more about his father throughout the film, he sees more how his issues align with his absent parent, and there are shady character behaviours that McBride takes part in himself that portray worrying similarities between the two. McBride’s journey in finding his father is exhaustive, but it’s consistently helmed with spectacular cinematography that creates ample atmosphere and a sombre mood in a contemplative film that address personal themes. The wide scope of the film never detracts from the intimacy of the film’s messages in its climatic act where a resounding message to appreciate what’s around you and connect with the people beside you is so eloquently delivered and is a smart counter-statement to the obsessive ambition that has thwarted McBride’s father and his mind. It’s a clever and bold film from James Gray in his biggest swing for the fences, and for the most part, it is a welcome success.