by Philip Price
Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones & Ruth Negga
Runtime: 2 hours & 3 minutes
“Ad Astra” is a Trojan horse of a movie for as mainstream as a film about space exploration wrapped in mystery and starring Brad Pitt sounds like it would be if one is able to expel such expectations set by the marketing and feast on the fulfillment that “Ad Astra” ultimately embodies given the aspirations of writer/director James Gray's (“The Lost City of Z”) latest work one would quickly come to realize this is a film filled with ideas and questions bubbling just below the surface despite its apparent facade; questions the movie as well as Gray's screenplay may or may not have answers to.
“Ad Astra” is also, and not coincidentally, a film that is as slick in its storytelling as it is its visual representation meaning there is an immediate confidence to the film that speaks to the idea that it knows exactly what it wants to be and where it's going even if, as we go further into the deepest reaches of our solar system, the philosophical ponderings posed by the film seem to be or at least feel more like questions born out of questions that were born out of the writing process. Moreover, the themes and ideas “Ad Astra” ultimately come to wrestle with being more the products of streams of consciousness writing than they do necessarily questions that pertain directly to the initial idea Gray was chasing. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, as it in fact makes for a rather rewarding experience given the mysteries the narrative offers. The few, distinct answers the film delivers are slight in both comparison and reward to the number of new questions and ideas one’s own mind will generate; the thought of the individual experience and reaction to certain material being such that each individual will respond differently, but with valid interpretations and inquiries is a claim not many films-especially mainstream Hollywood space movies with movie stars on their posters-can claim these days.
Yes, there have been a number of films about space starring members of the “Ocean's Eleven” ensemble lately, but neither of those films approach the topic of the stars with as much of a balance in cynicism and optimism as “Ad Astra” does. Given the Trojan horse comparison, one might expect the subtleties of the film to outweigh the more blunt aspects general audiences require from a space adventure, but there is a specific moment when, like Pitt's character of Major Roy McBride, we come to realize there are more layers to the picture than the ones being highlighted for us and that we can choose to either dig as deep as we'd like or revel in the surface pleasures-both have their perks-but the true reward comes in finding your own place to land.