Have you seen Ad Astra? Do you remember it being one of the most colourful movies you’ve ever seen? No? Why not?
Many modern space films have been guilty of looking a little drab and desaturated, but can we blame them? Space, as far as many of us see it, is pretty colourless. It’s just a vast black void punctuated only by blindingly bright light. We don’t immediately associate that limitless void with bold, striking colours that exist between those two extremes. So how does a film about space inject colour into its scenes whilst still remaining somewhat realistic?
Below are a couple of examples of other modern space movies and their more conservative colour palettes – click to enlarge them
I just did a quick Google image search for a couple of relatively recent space movies that sprang to mind above. It should be pretty clear to see that many movies set in space are often fairly monochrome and often stick to a fairly muted and small palette throughout.
Note: Remember I’m looking at present-day space movies here, not the kids movies that include space in them from Marvel, nor the broader and more futuristic sci-fi movies like Bladerunner.
In contrast to that, now look at some stills from Ad Astra. Immediately we can see above that Ad Astra is trying to cover a far broader spectrum of colours in their movie, but do they get away with this non-traditional vision of space? And how?
Ad Astra the Movie
First off, if you’ve not seen the movie, you should probably watch it first. I wont really be spoiling a huge amount that isn’t already discussed in the movie trailer though. I will be referencing the fact that our main character Brad Pit goes to visit his dad Tommy Lee Jones, but again, T.L.J. is shown in the trailer. Of course, if you’d rather not risk seeing anything prior to watching the film, then stop now. I will also add that this movie does not have any crazy plot twists, so there’s not really anything to ruin. Either way, definitely watch it as soon as you can, because although it’s not a groundbreaking story or anything, it’s certainly beautiful to look at and below we’ll discuss how they slide that beauty right under our noses the whole time.
Also, this is also not a movie review. I will be talking about colour and ideas surrounding the film whilst assuming you’ve seen the movie. I wont be discussing scenes in detail and explaining the plot, but the ideas on colour I’m discussing don’t require you to have seen the film either.
What does it look like?
Here are a few screens from the movie so that you get the gist of what it looks like first.
Pretty colourful, right?
If you’re not familiar with the plot or need a quick recap, essentially our boy Brad Pitt has gotta leave Earth on a very long journey to Neptune to see his old man about some lightning. It’s a very long trip, so the first stop is the moon (which we can now grab a domestic flight too in this timeline). We get attacked by pirates as we drive across the surface of the moon to the rocket which is our ticket to our next stop (and nope, the pirates attacking makes little sense in the movie too – it was blatantly just an excuse to shoot a cool sequence and showcase some gorgeous colours).
We then hitch a ride on a rocket to Mars. Try to call dad from there, he’s screening his calls so we gotta go see him in person. The plot thickens as our boss isn’t too keen on us going, but we stowaway on another ship anyway and settle down for the long journey to see the old man.
Granted, I’m simplifying the movie here…. but not by much. To further cement that simplification, let’s now break those plot beats down into scenes and more importantly colours.
- Moon base
- Journey across Moon
- Moon Rocket Base
- Journey to Mars
- Pitstop at another ship
- Leaving Mars
- Arriving on ship to Neptune
- Trip to Neptune
- Prior to meeting dad
- Father / Son
Below I will show you a series of images from each of these scenes and discuss the colouring within them briefly.
If you’re after a masterclass in modern visual storytelling with colour, then you could do worse than use Ad Astra as a template.
Earth: Greens / Browns / Yellows
It goes without saying that Earth and its characters are all seen in more ‘natural’ colours. Nearly all of the scenes on Earth are seen in these very clear greens, yellows and browns. In isolation, some of the scenes from our main characters personal life are very heavily coloured and orchestrated in that earthy brown colour. Like I say, it looks odd in isolation (see bottom left image above), but in the film when surrounded by other earthy scenes, it makes perfect sense.
Moon Base: Blue / Yellow
As with many scenes in Ad Astra, the moon base here is broken down into two colours and this one is a very distinct blue and yellow theme.
Moon Surface: White / Gold
This is actually one of the most striking scenes in the entire film and although it makes little sense, I love that it’s included as the golds and whites against that jet-black sky look incredible.
Moon Rocket Base: Teal / Grey
There are several scenes prior to this base where these two characters interact. Prior to this though, those scenes were very grey. Now as we are about to transition out of this chapter, we see grey being used in conjunction with teal.
Trip to Mars: Grey
There are a few scenes in Ad Astra that are predominantly grey. Sure, these are quieter times for reflection, but I also see them as a visual verse. A lull in the colour to allow us to appreciate the colourful chorus to come.
Pitstop at another ship: Beige / White
Again, I personally see this scene as a pacing device over having any real importance towards the arch of the film. That aside, I once again love the colours they are able to workwith here and they yet again manage to make another floating corridor appear very different from the last.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that the ‘red planet’ is depicted in this way, and although we spend a decent chunk of the movie here, the key vibe of the place is always depicted in these very rich, warm colours when we are showcasing mood and plot over individual character. I’ll discuss other Mars scenes that splice our time here at the end of this section, but for now, red and orange is our palette.
Leaving Mars: Yellows
As we prepare to leave Mars, we physically walk away from the darker oranges and transition into these yellows and golds. I find these scenes to be among some of the most abstract in the film. Yellow is often used for hope, warmth and new things. And although we emerge from the blackness into this warmth in the film, there is a heavy underlying tension that feels at odds with colours being portrayed to us. If you recall the movie then you’ll know what I’m referring too and our character quite literally emerges into this yellow lighting. Again, this is Ad Astra very boldly relying on a monochrome palette that is actually far harder to make look good than they’re making us believe.