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MOVIES: Ad Astra - Review

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Ad Astra is James Gray’s most recent epic and sees him return to a style of of film making that he is no stranger to. The Lost City of Z remains one of the best films of 2016 but this time, rather than look inwards to the murky heart of the jungle, Gray instead looks to the skies - to the vast emptiness of space as humanity questions their place in the universe. Is there life out there, among the stars? Or is this all that we’ve got?

Astronaut Roy McBride’s father seems to think that the quest is worth devoting his life to and has gone off the grid - presumed dead, in search of the truth. Now Roy must find the answers - work out what happened to him and why, and stop dangerous flares coming from Neptune before they can kill the world, evading a dangerous, lawless wasteland that is the Moon - in the middle of a warzone where pirates openly raid convoys, and watch his back from a government that is watching his every move, in order to take care of him the second his plan goes off the rails or he becomes too emotionally attached to the mission. To play a character like Roy you need a good actor, and it's a good job then, that Ad Astra has one of the best character actors in the business in the form of A-Lister Brad Pitt, who stole the scene as washed up 1960s stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood earlier in the year.

Here he plays a man one hundred per cent dedicated to the lawful completion of his mission by any means necessary, a career driven with little of the outside world to experience having walked away from his girlfriend. He's the perfect fit for a job that requires you to spend months of isolation in the stars. Pitt captures the intensity of his character with brilliance, able to nail the calm and collective mannerisms of Roy. You believe Pitt - like Roy, could have easily isolated himself from the outside world, and he sells every second with one of the best and most convicted performances of the year. Give that man all the Oscars - as he has a very real chance of being - in a just world - nominated for best actor and best supporting actor. As much as 2019 is Keanu Reeves' year, it is also Pitt's.

Which is a good thing because Roy is on screen for the vast majority of the film’s runtime - roles for supporting characters played by talented actors like Ruth Negga and Michael Gambon - are comparatively short, feeling like little more than extended cameos. That said, Ad Astra does have plenty of time for a couple of cameos in addition to this casting, with a welcome uncredited Natasha Lyonne cameo whose role has the potential for an entire three season long Netflix series that would make the most of the impeccable world building that doesn't sacrifice any of the tension or plot that the film has to offer. That said though, the decreasing amount of characters that surround Roy helps reflect his increasing loneliness that he feels the further time he spends away from Earth, to the point where at the very end, it is just him, driven on a quest from which nobody has ever returned from.

As a character piece, Ad Astra works brilliantly. Its pace drags at times however and those expecting a more tightly woven thriller teased by misleading trailers will be disappointed. There are faint - sometimes more than faint - touches of The Martian, Interstellar, High Life and Gravity felt in the film’s narrative, but Ad Astra manages to establish its own voice and town even if the similarities are there - made especially moreso by the fact that there seems to be a ‘famous actor goes into space on a voyage of self-discovery’ movie released every year now, and one can only hope that Fargo & Legion creator Noah Hawley’s upcoming Natalie Portman starring Lucy in the Sky does something different with the genre.

Even though it is unquestionably clear that Ad Astra will divide audiences, it is safe to say that its harshest of critics will be unable to deny that James Gray's latest is at the very least a beautiful film with some of the best-looking cinematography of the year. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who coincidentally, worked on Interstellar and is a regular Christopher Nolan collaborator) captures every detail with intricate care and precision, allowing every frame able to bring to life Gray’s pure, unadulterated vision that is made for the largest screen possible.

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