By Adam Ray Palmer
One of the most highly anticipated films of the festival for me was James Gray’s sci-fi drama that premiered today, a month before it’s official worldwide release.
Starring in James Gray’s and co-writer Ethan Gross’s movie is Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga.
As I took my seat in the Sala Darsena theatre, I had that overwhelming feeling that I was in for an epic outer space journey. The sci-fi genre is certainly one that I adore and there’s nothing quite like a moving, intergalactic picture. Interstellar, Gravity and last year’s First Man all gave me the feels, and I am pleased to say Ad Astra is now on that list too.
Ad Astra centres on Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a lonely, strong-willed man who is emulating his father’s life of space exploration. From the outset, we see a power surge across the globe that is destroying life as we know it. Within 10 minutes of screen time, we see on the news that more than 40,000 people have died from the latest ‘surge’.
We quickly learn that the interplanetary, overpowering currents could be coming from a distant space station near Neptune, uncoincidentally where the last communication took place with McBride’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). For the sake of mankind, Roy McBride must undertake a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.
From the first mighty surge, a tense undertone surrounds the film from start to finish. The camera ensures an essence of claustrophobia at all times. James Gray creates an environment where you rarely get a moment’s rest before the next angst-ridden sequence. The narrative continuously ramps up with edge of your seat tension before climaxing with an anxious crescendo.
Along the way, we are introduced to different characters that move the plot along. The first is Liv Tyler’s angelic-appearing Eve McBride, who is Roy’s long-suffering wife. She’s at home alone, living a life that means only seeing her fleeting husband once in a blue moon (excuse the pun). We then meet Donald Sutherland’s Colonel Pruitt, a space commander veteran who for 31 years worked with Clifford, before parting ways as a ‘traitor’ as he didn’t follow McBride Snr’s exploration wishes. This is where we learn, for definite, something isn’t quite right with father McBride.
Ruth Negga is the next character we come into contact with on planet Mars, where she plays the steely and stern Helen Lantos, a communications worker on the American space station. Each protagonist aids Roy’s mission in one way or another, releasing more information about the doomed mission that occurred 16 years prior – this all adding to the uneasy atmosphere, culminating in a troubled finale.
The 120-minute run time flies by as we travel from planet to planet. The production design and score are both outstanding respectively, each assisting in making Ad Astra as powerful as possible. Max Richter’s score is sublime. He has previous in this genre with the soundtrack for Arrival in 2016 and so he’s certainly at home with a science-fiction epic. Like Richter, the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema also knows how to structure a grand space drama as he framed Nolan’s Interstellar back in 2014. The picture is vividly haunting, as is the moving and poignant score throughout by Richter.
With the direction, score and production design on point; it allows Brad Pitt to shine on the big screen once again. The close-up camera work on Pitt’s forlorn, expressionless face is unrelenting and unforgiving as he narrates emotion-filled sequence after sequence. Nominations at awards season is certainly on the cards for the three-time Oscar nominee, and you’ll be mad to bet against him squeezing into the top five. What a year it has been for him with this and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
For a film that has had huge expectation weighted upon it, in a nutshell, Ad Astra delivers. James Gray follows up his critically acclaimed The Lost City of Z with yet another exceptional picture to add to his back catalogue. I can’t help but think that this should have been the festival opener. Although, come to think of it, you should never kick off with one of the best feature films on the Lido this year… it could just go downhill from here.
Cineroom’s rating: 5 stars
Ad Astra will be released in UK cinemas on 18th September – certificate 12A