Per ardua ad astra
(Through adversity to the stars)– Motto of the British Royal Air Force
Ad Astra is a movie that I believe would be perfect to start with for a new reviewer of cinema. It is very well shot with many gorgeous vistas, serviceable dialogue that got the point of the movie across, and it was a good reminder that it doesn’t need to be a sequel in a long, drawn out franchise in order to be an excellent film. If I were to sum up the movie with two words, it would be these: beautifully boring. Allow me to elaborate with a spoiler filled review.
The movie stars Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride: a man tasked by the United States government to track down and evaluate problems caused by a vessel in outer space captained by his father, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The derelict vessel, orbiting the space just above Neptune, has malfunctions with its antimatter core, threatening the entirety of known life with constant “surges” in energy. Though he is helped along the way, Roy must venture alone into the depths of space to complete his mission in an ever-solitary cosmos.
This movie is stunning to look at. Taking place in a not so distant future, there is a perfect balance of gorgeous real shots as well as many set pieces taking place in beautifully shot CG. With each set piece, there is a distinct feeling you get watching the adventure unfold. The themes of the movie are woven into shot composition, showing varying colors along with the emotions of the scenes. There is a sequence of the film where Roy is at a height of frustration, being displayed in the deep shades of red (when the film takes place on a Mars space station). Then the film slows down, showing the isolation of space travel, lighting flickers alongside our characters bouts of extreme loneliness.
The sets were also designed with a sense of maintaining realism. In this realistic science fiction film, space travel over distances of planets has been obtained, giving away to a base of future-plausible technology. Many times, the film combines realistic looking space engineers using things like supped up future iPads and whatnot. While this can sometimes be something that will break my immersion in a film, it was subtle enough to keep me invested. The one time I chuckled at the weird tech was when, in a world of advanced space-age technology, a plot point is expressed via a thumb drive made out of cardboard. Much like the movie Interstellar, where there are robots and space travel, the technology looks lived in and rough (it wasn’t the kind of technology drowned in white and shiny plastic). My personal favorite scenes in Ad Astra are when Roy is alone, offering the audience the chance to take in the scene while monologue takes place.
Now let’s talk about why I called this movie boring, and why that can be a good thing. Movies like this try to take back science fiction from the precedent that Star Wars had set in 1976. Science fiction can sometimes have little or no action and still convey a worthwhile premise or theme. Where Ad Astra is strongest for me is when it shows the thematic elements that surround the title itself. The only gripes that I have in this movie at all are the action sequences. The movie was at its most laughable when Roy has to fend off a group of scientists to take control of a ship. There is struggling with a knife and even gunshots from someone that results in everyone except the protagonist dying. Another sequence comically shows Roy fighting against a monkey in a derelict ship on the way to Mars. These two scenes, being more tense moments in the film, seem to only serve some arbitrary quota for violence in a space film. If the action doesn’t serve the plot in any way, then as Reggie Fils-Aimé once said, “…why bother?” (2017).
The most important thing to me in a movie with a title like Ad Astra is the thematic elements involved. This movie is about space, which is a literal translation of the Latin phrase, but there is also an element of exploration of the self as well as an odyssey in the stars. This movie has both the main character and his father searching within themselves: reaching through the vastness of space for destiny as well as reason for existence. Roy’s father rejects his glory and material life to search space for intelligent life. There is also a theme, contained within the dialogue of the movie, of the sins of the father. Because of the burden of his father abandoning him, Roy must also abandon his family, continually giving meaning to the ancient adage. For me, this is the kind of stuff that more than makes up for a silly fight with a monkey in a spaceship.
Final Verdict: 3 out of 5
This movie is really worth watching if you want to see a relatively intelligent movie that is beautifully shot. The concepts in this movie are going to be familiar to someone who has watched traditional science fiction films. It’s not going to blow the socks off of a majority of people, but it is well worth a viewing.