Director: James Gray
Writers: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Score: Max Richter
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Editors: John Axelrad, Lee Haugen
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland
Everything you need to know
With this review of Ad Astra, I want to try something different regarding the structure. I want to give you general impressions only, without a hint of the story of the film. I have two reasons for that: First, I wrote the first draft of this review an hour after I came home from the cinema. This film left me with a deep impression, and I wanted to make sense of it. The second reason concerns my advice to watch this movie without any prior knowledge. I think this way, you will get a more wholesome experience.
Call a friend you like to spend some time with and who can resist the urge to talk during movies. Go to a cinema (IMAX would be excellent), buy your tickets for Ad Astra, sit down — maybe take a beverage with you — and watch the film. Popcorn and other food will just distract you. Sit there and let the creators guide you. After the movie, talk to someone, hug a friend. Come back and read the rest of this article.
Be seeing you…
Thoughts on Ad Astra
This part of the review might contain thematic and philosophical spoilers!
Are you back? Good. Let‘s talk about:
A fascinating aspect of Ad Astra comes with the fact that the story seems irrelevant. One could read a complete summary of the plot and know nothing about the core of it. And that is the reason I think this movie will be very binary. Either you love it or you hate it.
The structure and style of this movie remind me of Interstellar, Gravity, and even a hint of Silence. All of those movies tackle deeply philosophical questions. Questions about the very being of our existence. Questions concerning the emotions and phases every human being goes through at one point in their lives. They ask those questions not necessarily through the dialogue or their story, but through images and music. They let you be a part of the journey. You do not just watch the protagonist‘s journey but are part of it.
The two hours feel like months. I didn’t have any sense of time anymore and just went along for the ride. If you can let go of any expectations and watch Brad Pitt’s perfectly nuanced performance, Ad Astra has the potential to be one of the best movies you have seen this year. The simplicity of the story (a son goes on a journey in the hopes of finding his long-lost father–in space) helps to focus on the most essential parts.
This journey takes you from the Earth to the moon and continues to Mars. Finally, through the vastness of space, you reach Neptune. And as the protagonist leaves all traces of humanity and civilization behind, the creators slowly–piece by piece–take everything away from him. They deconstruct a person until there is nothing left but pure survival … and even that is put to question.
It feels like nothing matters anymore as the protagonist drifts through outer space, caged in a spaceship. Like a monkey in a laboratory cage to be experimented on. He is utterly alone. And as he drifts through empty space for about 80 days (from Mars to Neptune), we are alone with him in this metal coffin. Stars and planets have lost their beauty and awe. What does it all matter?
If you thought Brad Pitt was a good actor in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, wait until you see what he accomplishes here. His character learns throughout the movie how to cope with his emotions–and even learns what emotions are. As he slowly progresses during the film, Pitt uses every nuance of facial expression. Every movement drags you more into his world. It is magnificent to watch.
And as his character loses everything, right then, right before this moment where you think life has no meaning and humanity doomed, it gives you something back. Something so simple but compelling. Pitt’s character floats in space and sees the reflection of the sun’s light as it hits his spaceship orbiting Neptune. Something that meant death and despair minutes earlier has a whole other meaning: hope. Hope for a better future, a better understanding of what it means to be human and to exist in this world. Our world.
From the very first scene to the last moments, just before the credits, every beat works. The visual effects are extraordinary, the music accentuates every emotional nuance, and the realistic sound design of space travel terrifying. Even the technology itself feels as if it could exist soon. There is not a word too much, not a single frame wasted. We understand the world instantly because it is so similar to our own.
And like in real life, there is no tension relieved at the end. Everyone has to find his or her own way through existence. And that’s the beauty of the underlying message if there even is one: there is a light. Always. We just have to look for them. Sometimes, the light even finds us. The images and themes this movie touches hopefully invite philosophers and others to write essays about it.
Ad Astra shows us what really matters. But before we can appreciate the hints it gives us (to questions we heard so often before), it has to dismantle everything we know. Because when there is nothing left but pure existence, a simple idea, sparked by the tiniest light, can mean everything.