Review: Space thriller ‘Ad Astra’ transcends its genre

James Gray’s latest film takes audiences on a journey through more than space

‘Ad Astra’ premiered on September 19.

More than just a movie about a space adventure, “Ad Astra” is about feelings with which audience members globally can empathize; feelings like lost hope, despair, and the need to belong in a universe that is far greater than all of us.

The story takes place in a future in which humanity is lost in a struggle to keep advancing while simultaneously depleting its resources. These opening statements are reaffirmed by the first scene, wherein Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) takes a psychological exam with a machine – not a real person.

McBride is granted access for a spacewalk. This seemingly routine procedure quickly takes a turn for the worst when there is a mass power outage on the space antenna, and McBride loses his grip, causing him to plummet back to Earth.

Miraculously, he survives the fall and is duly informed that the power outage was the consequence of “surges” being sent from the far reaches of the solar system.

It is then revealed that the surges threaten life on Earth and are being caused by something known as “The Lima Project”, a mission on which McBride’s own father had gone missing.

After a commercial flight to the moon (another example of the technological advancement) and a brief run-in with space pirates, Roy finds himself aboard a ship traveling for an outpost on Mars.

His mission, which is highly classified, is to send a signal to his lost father in hopes of finding him and putting a stop to the surges.

Through the use of thoughtful lighting and specific camera movement, the audience gets a true feel for the situation in which McBride has been thrust, and the emotional turmoil that he is facing.

The third act comes with a resolution that is filled with both shocking and elicit emotion. The film morphs from more than just a space adventure and into an examination of the dark, methodical plunge of the human spirit.

Brad Pitt makes this film possible.

If it wasn’t for his exceptional portrayal of a man deteriorating psychologically, there wouldn’t be nearly as much substance. His way of immersing himself into the character, which has been a trademark of his throughout a storied career, transcends the limits of the film into areas in which it could not exist otherwise.

In addition to a lifetime performance from Pitt, James Gray gives life to the film by executing a classic three-act structure. Each act pulls the audience in a little further, brings the plot to fruition, then leaves them with a message for their own interpretation.

His style is marked by thoughtful choices on how to tell the story, oftentimes relying on the tried and true “show don’t tell” principle. For example, we get to see McBride’s descent into madness through the lack of lighting, close-ups and drawn out sequences.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of space adventure stories (“Gravity”, “The Martian”, “Interstellar”) which have been highly critically acclaimed. “Ad Astra” sets itself apart from the pack by being less about space and more about coming to grips with an ever-growing existential crisis.

As McBride pushes further through the solar system, the audience is sent further out of touch with reality – thanks in large part to Gray’s poignant direction and Pitt’s stellar performance.

Overall, the story and execution of the film are mesmerizing, and deserving of whatever awards will come its way.

Rating: 4/5

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