There’s this uncanny, eery silence in space. In most sci-fi, silence is usually ridden roughshod over by dramatic scoring or various mise-en-scène elements which dominate the narrative. Look no further than Nolan’s critically-acclaimed Interstellar, unreservedly one of my personal favourites.
The specific inclusion of silence then in moments of Ad Astra, with only the narration from Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) set against it, is all the more prominent. Serving as both internal monologue as well as in-story psych-evaluations, McBride’s voice echos loud and clear, well above the sounds of everything else. The echoes are far-reaching, long past the scenes they’re ascribed to.
Music is particularly important in this film. Or more specifically, often times the lack of it. Fans of the space-simulation game Elite: Dangerous will no doubt be able to draw parallels in the scoring; it’s a minimalist experience which only conveys the barest essentials, yet equally as compelling, if not more so (for different reasons), than Hans Zimmer’s creation for Interstellar.
It’s a soundscape literally designed to communicate the vast wonder that is space. And the deeply solitary existence of all those who travel through it.
Ad Astra is, subjectively speaking, a classical “thinking man’s space opera”. Directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z), it’s as much science-fiction as it is an excursion into past classics. Telling the story of dis-associative astronaut Roy McBride’s journey deep into the far reaches of the Solar System, in search of hero-father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) thought long dead, it’s a film comparable to Apocalypse Now. Both men – Willard and McBride – head into unknown territory to carry out a mission, and in the process, leave them drastically changed individuals.
The demons both protagonists confront – Kurtz and McBride’s father (Jones) – are corrupted versions of themselves, changed by singular pursuit and the pains of their environment. This is not an unfamiliar story.
Yet what is different is an almost Terrence Malick-esque approach to the story-telling. The clear emotional disconnect to everything and everyone dooms McBrides’ marriage with Eve (Liv Tyler, in a minor role), but almost makes him the near-perfect candidate for outer space missions. And as McBride navigates his way towards his final destination, the breakdown of the character simmers so slowly I wondered if it was Brad Pitt just doing Brad Pitt.
Themes of God and faith and father/son relationships, and again, that silence in the deep black persist throughout the narrative. It’s a character study for Pitt, with long sustained close-ups, monologuing voice-overs, and some deep introspection unlike anything he’s attempted before. The closest comparison would be The Tree of Life, but even then, that was carried as much by Sean Penn as it was Pitt. Here, he’s all alone, and in more ways than one. It’s a performance full of subtlety and nuance, with a level of understated elegance I didn’t know he had.
It’s also a film about connectivity, of relating to our fellow humans, and of connecting to one another. To say more is to give away more spoilers than I would like – take what you will from your own subjective journey, is my usual preference. But if you’re interested and just can’t be bothered, take a look at Alissa Wilkinson’s review on Vox.
Technically, the cinematography is just as compelling, and without a doubt deserves to be seen in as a large a screen as you can access. The totality of the vastness of space and our minuscule insignificance to it is beautifully conveyed, and without a doubt, parallels to Apocalypse Now not withstanding, an equal character in the over-arching narrative. It’s another one of those “seen to be experienced” situations that any attempts to vocalise it is just insufficient.
There’s more here to be discussed, and it’s most absolutely not a perfect vehicle as far as sci-fi films go. And definitely don’t watch this after a very long tiring day.
But if you want some cerebral kick up the backside, well, there’s worse choices you can make.