A visually stunning, compelling intimate drama 4 Stars

Marketing for Ad Astra appeared to suggest the central driving premise was baked around the search for life beyond the stars and a world-threatening event, but that isn’t really what the film is about. The threat to the solar system is a foundational layer upon which and entirely different journey is laid upon. Resolving the threat, addressing the question of “are we alone” isn’t something director James Gray is interested in answering. He cares more about how we as a species, collectively, have questions of what’s out there. I suppose, beneath the outward journey across the solar system, the universality and connected nature of our plight and potential as a species is the driving and simmering idea, and we follow that idea deeply, watching it take root and expression through Pitt’s character.

Ad Astra is a serious tale, letting its serious, ponderous tone permeate every moment up right to the closing seconds. Yet, despite all that seriousness, it manages to leave us with something quite hopeful. And in that, I found the journey fascinating and one well worth taking.

Ad Astra (2019)
Released: 20 Sep 2019
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 123 min
Director: James Gray
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland
Writer(s): James Gray, Ethan Gross
Plot: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes 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.
IMDB rating: 6.7
MetaScore: 80

Disc Information
Studio: Fox
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.39.1
Audio: Dolby Atmos, English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD, Spanish 5.1 DTS, French 5.1 DTS, Other
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French, Other
Rating: PG-13
Run Time: X Hr. X Min.
Package Includes: UHD, Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Case Type: Standard 4k
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 12/17/2019
MSRP: $28.56

The Production: 4/5

“He captured strange and distant worlds in greater detail than ever before. They were beautiful, magnificent… full of awe and wonder. But beneath their sublime surfaces… there was nothing. No love or hate. No light or dark. He could only see what was not there… and missed what was right in front of him.”

A cosmic and catastrophic “surge” washes over the earth, wreaking havoc and killing tens of thousands of people across the globe. More surges threaten the very existence of all life in our solar system. Surviving the catastrophe, astronaut Major Roy McBride is called upon by the U.S. Space Command (SpaceCom) for a top-secret mission. That mission is to head to the edges of our explored solar system to find his father, H. Clifford McBride, a man missing for 16 years, presumed dead, as part of a failed mission to Neptune. SpaceCom believes Roy’s father could potentially be the cause of the surge and task Roy with a mission to traverse the gulf of space and solve the mystery by any necessary means.

James Gray’s Ad Astra is the smallest and most intimate of journeys played out on the grandest of scales in a flawed but fascinating film. It’s a film driven by a measured, internalized performance by Brad Pitt, who occupies almost every moment of the film. Pitt is superb in this role. Roy McBride is a man of focus and attention; a man unimpressed with the grander meaning of things and concerned only with a controlled execution of his mission, and in those tight character confines, Pitt is excellent. But Pitt’s performance is sublimated as Roy’s experiences evolve and the control he earnestly embraces, wavers in the emptiness of space. Watching Pitt deliver a performance this rich with nuance and restraint is rewarding.

The influence of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness on the storyline is clear, but amongst the oppressive and deadly canvas of the stars, there is something uniquely dramatic and compelling about the way this story unfolds. Gray, working from a screenplay he wrote with Ethan Gross, patiently explores the inner, baited emotional challenge of Pitt’s McBride, and while there are broader questions suggested by the plot, those questions are never really the point. They seem to only matter in so much as they support McBride’s journey to confrontation, contemplation, revelation and realization. Ultimately, Ad Astra explores a far more basic and simple question about the nature of being human; about what it means in our collective experiences. Loneliness, expectation, obsession, and the underexplored realm of what makes our souls tick become the rungs upon this story’s ladder.

The film offers outstanding visual effects work, exemplary production design, one of the most compelling scores I’ve heard in years, and a slate of fine supporting performances which, though brief (as the film is almost exclusively focused on Pitt’s McBride), are very strong. The supporting players include Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride, Ruth Negga as Helen Lantos, Loren Dean as Donald Stanford, Donald Sutherland as Thomas Pruitt, Kimberly Elise as Lorraine Deavers, and Liv Tyler as Eve.

Films like Ad Astra can be risky propositions in cinema. With such a large budget (driven by the sheer volume of visual effects) combined with the sullen and arthouse approach to the material, it is perhaps not all that surprising the film struggled at the box office (grossing $127MM from an $80-100MM budget). Critical reaction was stronger than the general audience response, and I find myself in line with the critical consensus. I found Ad Astra an absorbing and intimate film, and, when taken as a journey inward while the visuals show us an outward journey, the juxtaposition of those ideas becomes compelling. An argument could be made that Pitt’s narration was unnecessary, but even while it tells us sometimes things we already know from Pitt’s performance, its use supports in the intimate tone of the film and I think its worth in that way outweighs its sometimes unnecessary narrative value.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

Shot on film, Ad Astra is stunning in 4k. A film with several distinct environments (earth, the moon, space craft, Mars, Neptune), each space offers a distinct color palette and renders with a delightful grain and impressive level of detail. In the various space craft used in the film, the set design is showcased nicely with the higher resolution offered on this Ultra High Definition disc. The moon sequence, with its pitch-black sky contrasted against the silvery grey, and at times almost white surface, is reference worthy.

The Mars palette is decidedly murkier in the colors and even diffuse haziness supported by intriguing lighting choices (courtesy of cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema). The HDR 10 grading deepens the black levels, ups some of the bright contrasts (on the moon, for example), and gives a boost to some of the colors as well (take note of Neptune’s blue or the deep red/orange of the sound booth on Mars).

While the included Blu-ray offers a terrific amount of detail, the added resolution and HDR grading on the 4K disc are without a doubt the best way to enjoy this film.

Audio: 5/5

Ad Astra comes with stellar audio options (including a magnificent Dolby True HD 7.1 track, and Dolby Atmos track for those so equipped). What’s fascinating about the audio for Ad Astra is the richness of sounds on offer for your home theater equipment, from the explosive opening moments to the surrounding effects on the crafts Roy takes on his multi-step journey to the far reaches of our solar system. While adhering to the reality of no sound in space, the film finds spectacular ways to bring an intimacy to the audio, with punches to the bass and subwoofer, the sounds of breathing, the internal narration, and the utterly absorbing score by Max Richter (and additional music from Lorne Balfe (plus a track by Nils Frahm)).

Ad Astra is rendered a more powerful viewing experience through the exceptional sound design and use of surrounds.

Special Features: 3/5

The 4K disc contains only the Audio Commentary by director James Gray, while the included Blu-ray disc contains the commentary plus the rest of the special features on offer.

What we have is not the most comprehensive examination of the production and the film’s meaning, but the start of insights into those things. Interview segments with directory Gray, star Brad Pitt, and a handful of others offer glimpses into character motivations, set and costume authenticity, and tackling such an intimate story on a large scale, and Gray in particular is revealing in his comments on what the film meant to him and how important it was for him to explore a story he was compelled to tell. There’s a missed opportunity for a critical examination here though. This film begs for a noted film critic to unpack interpretation of performance, motivation, framing and narrative construct. But still, a better collection of short special features than one might have expected given the financial performance of the film.

  • Deleted Scenes with Optional Audio Commentary by James Gray
    • “The Void”
    • “Epilogue”
  • To the Stars
  • A Man Named Roy
  • The Crew of the Cepheus
  • The Art of Ad Astra
  • Reach for the Stars
  • Audio Commentary by Director James Gray*
  • Space Age: The VFX**

*Available on both the Blu-ray™ and 4K Ultra HD™

**Available on Digital only

Blu-ray version of the film

Digital Copy

Overall: 4/5

Marketing for Ad Astra appeared to suggest the central driving premise was baked around the search for life beyond the stars and a world-threatening event, but that isn’t really what the film is about. The threat to the solar system is a foundational layer upon which and entirely different journey is laid upon. Resolving the threat, addressing the question of “are we alone” isn’t something director James Gray is interested in answering. He cares more about how we as a species, collectively, have questions of what’s out there. I suppose, beneath the outward journey across the solar system, the universality and connected nature of our plight and potential as a species is the driving and simmering idea, and we follow that idea deeply, watching it take root and expression through Pitt’s character.

Ad Astra is a serious tale, letting its serious, ponderous tone permeate every moment up right to the closing seconds. Yet, despite all that seriousness, it manages to leave us with something quite hopeful. And in that, I found the journey fascinating and one well worth taking.

https://smile.amazon.com/Ad-Astra-4K-Ultra-Blu-ray/dp/B07WFJ9NX7/ref=tmm_frk_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1579460968&sr=8-1

Published by

N

Neil Middlemiss

editor,member

Bryan^H

Senior HTF Member
Joined
Jul 3, 2005
Messages
7,247
I just purchased this after reading your review Neil. I missed this in the theater and likely might have missed it on home video if not for your words.
The review has me intrigued, and was very well written!

Thank you so much.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Neil Middlemiss

Josh Steinberg

Premium
Reviewer
Joined
Jun 10, 2003
Messages
19,035
Real Name
Josh Steinberg
This was an interesting film for me, and one that I will eventually revisit. The ad campaign ruined this one for me in theaters because I felt the trailers were in no way representative of what the movie was - so I just felt like I was seeing something very different than what I had signed up for. Now that I know what it is, I’d like to revisit it with that understanding.
 

KeithDA

Second Unit
Joined
Jul 25, 2012
Messages
413
Location
Darlington, UK
Real Name
Keith
Just seen the film for the first time on 4k disc and Oled.
Knowing that it wasn’t ‘full on action’, I really enjoyed its more contemplative progress. Some of the science maybe a bit dodgy (explosions for propulsion and ‘surfing’ across the void), but it looks and sounds great.
 
Last edited: