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Ad Astra is a spectacularly beautiful and awe-inspiring hard-science-fiction masterpiece. Its' inspiring yet also haunting negative-space visuals depict humanity's hubris against, and isolation within, the boundless neutrality of the universe. A colonized Moon desecrated by unchecked capitalism, a space station in Mars that stands as a tribute to chronic loneliness and ennui, a stranded and doomed mission through the solar system desperately searching for a messianic savior in the form of advanced life. It's the near future, our technology has evolved enough for travel between planets, but our planet is dying, and people have lost hope. They look "ad astra" ("to the stars" in Latin) for an answer.
Ad Astra is a loose, unofficial remake of Apocalypse Now, mostly following in the nihilist footsteps of Coppola's cry against humanity's inherent madness. This time, the depressed and disillusioned protagonist is Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who goes through the motions of his work as an astronaut, but has mentally checked out from any form of meaningful human connection a long time ago. Like Captain Willard Before him, his face reads "obedient soldier", while his inner-monologue reveals his seething hatred against humanity's natural drive to wantonly destroy everything in its wake. His Colonel Kurtz is his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who abandoned his family almost three decades ago to venture as close to the edge of the solar system as possible in order to find other intelligent life in the universe.
The mission went dead a long time ago, but pulses believed to be from Clifford's ship is about to doom Earth more than it already is. Roy is sent on a perilous mission to Mars to try to contact his father, but failure to do so might signal more extreme action. Replace the river with space, the boat with multiple space ships, and the beats are all there. Usually, stating that a movie follows so closely in the footsteps of another is a knock, but during its third act, Ad Astra pulls off a miraculous philosophical twist that forces us to reconsider every moment that we've been through. It's a great homage, yet manages to completely stand on its own.
Ad Astra is an exciting and thrilling sci-fi/adventure. Co-writer/director James Gray uses the various space settings to formulate some of the most original and breathtaking set pieces of recent years. The foundational concept of a car chase on The Moon, let alone its captivating execution, presents a slow-motion action scene that's actually not in slow motion. A tense detour as Roy's crew checks out a distressed ship turns into a terrifying reminder about how deadly and unforgiving space can be.
Ad Astra is a grounded yet touching allegory on depression. Roy's physical journey into Neptune, as he gets further and further away from humanity in search of a connection that's probably not there for him anymore, and perhaps was never there for him, mirrors his mental departure from modern society. As he has to deal with less and less people around him, until there's only himself to contend with, he finds some solace in the emptiness. Pitt's masterful performance, in full command of subtle body language, can express mountains of emotion with a single look.
Yet Ad Astra is also about the still lingering hope for humanity, and perhaps for Roy. This is evidenced through a bitter truth that might eventually provide our real salvation. But you'll have to watch it to get there.
In order to artistically grasp the conflict between peaceful isolation and the inner yearning for a human connection, Ad Astra switches between cold blues and earthly reds in stark definition. The 1080p transfer relays the film's unique and exquisite cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema in an incredibly crisp and clear way, without any color bleeding or other discernible video noise.
The DTS-HD 7.1 track booms to life during the occasional set piece, with the score and sound effects blending perfectly to create an immersive experience through the surround channels. That being said, the true advantage of listening to Ad Astra through a surround system is being able to fully experience the detail-oriented ambiance that adds so much to the quiet scenes.
Commentary by James Gray: Gray is extremely well prepared for this commentary, packing every moment with insight into the many choices that went into every sequence, while also providing a cohesive argument for his film's many themes.
To The Stars: A typical 8-minute EPK that mostly has the cast and crew basically relaying the film's plot and themes.
A Man Named Roy: A quick look into Pitt's character.
The Crew of the Cepheus: A surprisingly detailed featurette about the conflict between Roy and his crew during the mission, as well as how Roy's mental isolation contributed to its many tragedies.
The Art of Ad Astra: An 11-minute featurette that shows how concept art was realized through a subtle blend of real sets and VFX.
Reach for the Stars: A quick featurette about how closely Ad Astra's space tech mirrors the real thing.
Deleted Scenes: Three minutes of quick scenes, one of which would have given a whole new context to Roy's backstory if it was kept in.
We also get a Trailer.
Ad Astra was my number one movie of 2019 (You can watch my year-end video here), and this terrific Blu-ray transfer is a must-own for fans of the film.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com