In terms of space exploration the past decade or so has been quite disappointing to follow. It seems like the United States and many other countries in the world are stuck trying to find the right balance between private sector and government controlled space exploration, and that has really halted any sort of advances over the past few years. At the movies, though, we have hit a golden era of space movies. Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and First Man have all come out in recent years and we just passed the ten year anniversary of Moon. All of these movies have been quite memorable. The latest addition to the genre belongs right alongside these movies. Ad Astra takes the Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now story arc and brings it to space. It’s an at times bleak and at times slow movie that still finds ways to visually stun you and give you a sense of optimism that you didn’t know it was capable of delivering.
Ad Astra takes place in a future not to far away where we have not only built structures into space but have advanced manned spaceflight far enough to reach Neptune. An American astronaut (Brad Pitt) is told that a recent string of electromagnetic surges that have caused major accidents all around Earth might be coming from his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who was on a mission to the outer reaches of the solar system in order to get better pictures of the universe and discover if there is other life out there before supposedly going rogue. The astronaut is tasked with a mission that carries him to the Moon, Mars and Neptune.
It is painfully obvious that director and screenwriter James Gray wanted this to be an Apocalypse Now in space movie. Not only is the structure of the movie similar but the dialogue is eerily so too. A lot of this movie is spent with close-ups of Brad Pitt as he monologues through the inning thinking of his character (the monologues easily remind you of Willard’s in Apocalypse Now). Fortunately, though, this all works. The Apocalypse Now format is just so interesting and not really copied very often so giving it a space setting gives it just enough of a unique spin. Also, Brad Pitt delivers with the huge task of carrying this movie pretty much by himself. Pitt is at his best when he is asked to ground a character that would normally come across as unhinged (just look at his career best performances in The Tree of Life and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) so he was perfect for this role.
This is easily James Gray’s largest and probably most accessible film yet. You can notice scientific inaccuracies and poor CGI and sound design more so than in some of the other recent entries into this genre, but Gray still delivers a few great sequences including a chase sequence on the moon and a sequence in space that works as one of the best moments of horror in cinema this year. Gray also gets some stellar work from Hoyte van Hoytema (who really broke out with his work on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar so he is used to this environment). Van Hoytema finds a way to make each planet look different in rather interesting fashion.
Ad Astra continues a strong run for the space drama genre.