Often the most basic premises make for the best films and AD ASTRA is a glaring example. Taking a generic rescue-mission narrative the film explores its science-fiction drama with a rare casualness, treating its fiction as though it were fact. The near future as depicted is sincere and familiar, allowing the story to unfold as though we can imagine it within our lifetime.
As Pitt's character journeys from one point to another the audience is treated to a visceral wonder, with his marker-points including a colonised war-stricken version of the Moon, an industrialised Mars and far-reaching space stations. It is a perpetual unravelling of wonderment that is cemented by director James Gray's nonchalant approach to the story. He has invested meticulous attention to detail so that the audience can let the environments wash over them. In fact I would go so far as to consider him a master craftsman.
Gray's previous film was the criminally under-appreciated The Lost City of Z and other films of his include The Immigrant, We Own The Night and The Yards. These titles attest to his level-headed and carefully considered approach to cinema, with AD ASTRA being his most accomplished film to date.
Pitt is excellent in what is essentially a one-man-show. He occupies every frame of the film and carries it with ease. His apathetic demeanour may suggest a phoned in performance to some, whereas others will recognise the level of depth and sincerity. Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as his long-lost father and occupies most of his screen time in a series of video diaries, giving clues to his whereabouts. Donald Sutherland also features – albeit briefly – as a former astronaut and colleague accompanying Pitt on the mission (yes, yes, Jones and Sutherland... Space Cowboys... we were all thinking it).
With an awe-inspiring and mind-blowing production design, married with incredible special effects, AD ASTRA soars far beyond most of its contemporaries. The drama and mystery drives the film to spectacular heights and serves as a reminder of what Christopher Nolan's Interstellar SHOULD have been. There is no pretentious parable or metaphorical fantasy closing this film, nor is there any sign of the director's ego. Instead we are taken to the edge of the known solar system to witness the fragilities of the human mind. Isolation and depravation underline this narrative and with the exception of a slightly sentimental finale, AD ASTRA reaches for the stars and snatches them from the sky.
See the film in the biggest screen possible and let the film take its sweet time. There is no rush here and the more leisurely it meanders, the more absorbing it becomes.