PRO: Starlight, star bright.
A futuristic deconstruction of masculinity packaged as a big-budget sci-fi spectacular, James Gray’s Ad Astra travels light years beyond expectations and deserves every bit of Oscar buzz its receiving. In a towering, career-defining performance that makes his recent work with Tarantino look positively immature, Brad Pitt plays an astronaut tasked with saving the galaxy from a series of magnetic blasts that his Neptune-orbiting father (Tommy Lee Jones) may be responsible for. A suffocatingly male version of Robert Zemeckis’ underrated Contact, Gray’s film uses a family reconciliation plot to probe the emotional cost of mankind’s inherent existential curiosity, and the crushing disappointments that come along with it.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s desperately lonely vision of space and Dev Hynes’s haunting score evoke an unforgettable sense of metaphysical dread rarely seen in mainstream cinema. Boldly punctuated by a few wildly exhilarating action sequences (space pirates!) that bring welcome bursts of adrenaline to an otherwise somber and introspective affair, it’s one of the most tightly designed films of the year, and a tiny glimmer of hope for the future of popcorn movies. Jared Abbott.
CON: In space, no one can hear you care.
There’s no denying that James Gray’s Heart of Darkness-echoing space odyssey looks and sounds ravishing. From an awe-inspiring, Gravity-indebted opening to its evocatively lensed final act, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s immaculate cinematography never faulters. Paired with Kevin Thompson’s wonderous retro-futurist set design, Max Richter’s sumptuous score and the Dev Hynes use of real sounds from space, Ad Astra becomes a veritable treat for the senses. What a shame then that the film doesn’t get a script worthy of its production design. Overly beholden to the sci-fi classics that have preceded it, as well as more recent space fare like Interstellar and First Man, all Ad Astra does is beg the question: Do we need yet another space movie about a gifted but emotionally stunted male protagonist who is crippled with familial issues? Especially one that criminally sidelines the likes of Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga for more time with a sleepwalking Brad Pitt and his bathetic voiceover?
No, we don’t, and behind its moody introspection and lofty intentions lies a disappointingly conventional story, whose most promising moments (space pirates!) feel rushed. Ultimately, it’s a case of the empty vessel making a pretty noise. David Mouriquand.
Ad Astra | Directed by James Gray (US, 2019), with Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga. Starts Sep 19.
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