September 29, 2019


It’s interesting that two of the hottest films to come out of the Toronto International Film Festival 2019, Joker and Ad Astra, which have generated Oscar buzz, both borrow heavily from other films. While Joker clearly sought inspiration from Scorsese classics like The King of Comedy (1982), Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull (1980), Ad Astra was most certainly inspired by Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey (1968) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

Ad Astra takes especially heavily from the latter two films. In fact, you could crudely sum it up as Apocalypse Now the Space Odyssey Lite. Like the two classics, Ad Astra feels like a slow burn, even though it’s only two hours long. Watching the quietly philosophical and somewhat depressing film, I felt a wide range of moving and provocative emotions, in large part due to the photography.

The visually stunning film was captured by Hoyte van Hoytema. While his work has taken our breath away in films like Interstellar (2014), Spectre (2015), and Dunkirk (2017), his cinematography in Ad Astra, shot on photochemical Kodak 35mm, hits the stratosphere. The masterful depiction of mankind’s haunting insignificance in the vastness of space, like a tiny ant set adrift upon a leaf in the middle of the ocean, is mesmerising.

As our hero, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) drifts further into the universe, away from the sun, the colour spectrum loses its richness. Each planet has its own hue, and the dead isolation of space is felt deeply as the colours fall from the spectrum. This isolation is felt further by Max Richter’s excellent score and Brad Pitt’s understated introspective performance as an explorer.

Starring Brad Pitt, Ad Astra’s masterful depiction of mankind’s haunting insignificance in the vastness of space is mesmerising

Like 2001 Space Odyssey, and more than other space travel films, Ad Astra lets us feel the bleakness of space travel. The film is set in a future where humanity is threatened by power surges. These surges are traced to the Lima Project, which sought to search for intelligent life from the edge of the universe.

The Lima Project was led by Roy’s father, famous space explorer H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Clifford hasn’t been heard from in over 15 years after he reached Neptune. Now, Roy learns that his father may still be alive. His mission is to reach Clifford and save mankind. Along the way he must battle the madness brought on by the solitude of exploration. Like Apocalypse Now, the film examines a father-son relationship with a dash of insanity. It also offers a captivatingly realistic look at mankind’s expansion into space, with subtle social commentary that appreciably avoids taking centre stage, and with questions about the meaning of life.

I’ve only seen Ad Astra once. While it’s too early to say whether this film will eventually be considered a masterpiece in the same vein as its parents, Apocalypse Now and 2001 Space Odyssey, my feeling is that it may not. It’s significantly better than the interesting, but flawed and pretentious, Interstellar. I love director James Gray’s attempt to channel the great and evocative work of the late Stanley Kubrick. But Ad Astra borrows too often from other films and has too many flaws in its grim final act to take a seat among the greats. At least, that’s my first impression.

Regardless, the film must be seen. Watch Ad Astra while it’s still in cinemas, preferably on IMAX or UltraAVX. Waiting to watch it on your laptop will be an injustice to yourself and the film.

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 29th, 2019