Thirty years ago, Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) father left Earth to pursue extra-terrestrial life but was lost in the process. When Space Command, the U.S.’s space military branch, is alerted to activity near the lost mission’s base, a much older Roy is sent on a mission to attempt contact with his decorated father.
“Ad Astra” takes place in the near future with technology like space suits and rockets appearing in forms easily recognizable to today’s viewers. The distant solar system has been explored; Subway and Applebee’s have expanded to the moon, which is now simultaneously a tourist attraction and contested war zone. The familiarity of the elements of the film’s setting is unsettling, making it feel like this future could be a plausible reality in a century or less.
The world itself is enhanced by the fantastic cinematography. It explores the isolation of space travel through claustrophobic shots and monochromatic lighting in addition to the breathtaking shots of space that are a trademark asset of sci-fi films. The cinematography is always in sync with the pace of the plot, growing contemplative and measured in the second half as the movie begins to forefront Ray in his new, unnerving surroundings. The expectations set by the first half of “Ad Astra,” which is more or less a space-western-action film in a war-torn setting, make the shift jarring at first — but once audiences adjust to the more subdued tone, it is the second half that truly shines.
The transition is made rockier by Roy’s initial characterization. He is hard to feel for at first; his father’s absence and immortalized heroic status have deeply affected his psyche. His quiet, in-control and friendly personality is belied by his emotionless, matter-of-fact narration, something that is necessary at first to depict Roy, but becomes more interesting as the plot unfolds. Roy exists for his mission, having severely damaged his marriage with his compartmentalized emotions and focused mindset. The initial glut of plot-driving dialogue doesn’t help the set-up either. The second half of this film remedies this issue, allowing Brad Pitt to breath in his role and convey emotion through his face instead of solely through simple dialogue and monotone narration.
“Ad Astra” may be setting itself up to disappoint some viewers by setting an action-packed tone in its first half that doesn’t carry over into the second half. That’s not to say the parts don’t fit well together, but a slower-paced, character-driven movie is not for everyone. Yet the pace meshes well with stunning cinematography and sound design, which conveys the idea of the isolation and claustrophobia of space travel so well that the audience visibly experienced a slight shock upon leaving the dark theater and returning to the crowded lobby. “Ad Astra” isn’t for everyone, but stunning shots of space, Brad Pitt’s performance, its realistic approach to sci-fi and a patient but gripping second half give the film reason for acclaim.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Sept. 23, 2019 print edition. Email Nicholas Weid at [email protected]