Ad Astra (‘to the stars’) is the new movie by director James Gray, starring Brad Pitt. I love James Gray’s films – they have a kind of low key emotionality, great considered performances, a mood that evokes the period of seventies American dramas that films have strayed from these days. Gray worked with actor Joaquin Phoenix for a number of years (The Yards, We Own The Night, Two Lovers, The Immigrant) but after that, Phoenix became more of a mainstream actor and Gray has slowly become acclaimed as an important director who makes personal auteur films with increasingly bigger stars. His last film before Ad Astra was The Lost City of Z which starred Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, and others. So, directing a movie that stars Brad Pitt seems like a catastrophic leap forward until you actually watch the film and realize it’s more of a quiet personal film which just happens to be set in space.
This is Pitt’s second major action role this year (after a turn in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood as a rugged stuntman). At age 55, Pitt is showing some of his creases and wrinkles, his more-salt-than-pepper white hair, but the grizzled edge actually works to make him even more handsome than those insufferable pretty boy movies he once used to churn out. Because of Ad Astra’s personal, confined feel, we get a fair number of close-ups of Pitt’s square-jawed facial structure as he looks pensive, forlorn, and endeavours to convey tension below the surface of those classical all-American good looks. Pitt stars as star astronaut Roy McBride, a decorated cool-under-pressure type whose accomplishments seem only overshadowed by those of his father, Clifford McBride (played by an even more grizzled and aging Tommy Lee Jones). It’s the future and Clifford McBride has been the greatest astronaut/explorer of them all, being the first cosmonaut to go to Jupiter, then Saturn (I guess Uranus was too embarrassing to mention); now he’s out near Neptune on a space station, causing trouble for those insignificant mortals back on Earth. There’s some activity involving antimatter (I don’t really understand it – the physics isn’t the most important concern for this movie) that’s causing destructive electronic power surges on Earth and the settlements on the moon. Roy hasn’t seen or heard from his father (Clifford left with a crew to look for intelligent life out there in the universe) since Roy was a teenager and everybody had assumed he was dead.
Now, Roy is tasked with the job of travelling to the moon, then out to Mars, and trying to communicate with his father and bring his renegade pop back into the fold, thus hopefully stopping the power surges. As a character, Roy is detached, cool, and distanced from those around him; it’s what allows him to maintain the demeanour and steady heart rate that make him so good at his job. However, as the mission progresses, this façade cracks as he must reckon with the relationship regarding his absentee icon of a father and the fact that Roy has emulated his father and alienated those who would like to get close to him. This is not a revolutionary premise – if anything, it’s a small character study – so why set it in space?
One answer could be that it might be fashionable for ambitious directors to notch a space movie onto their belts. Cuaron did it with the outstanding, pulse pounding thriller Gravity (look at the similarity between the posters fro Gravity and Ad Astra above). Nolan did it with Interstellar. Scott did it more recently in his career with The Martian. Ad Astra belongs to this league of prestigious neo sci-fi offerings which seem to use dark lighting, moody character development, and grave scenarios while evoking past classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien that they’re all paying homage to. It’s the concept sci-fi film as opposed to mainstream mental popcorn like Star Wars. Ad Astra certainly pays homage to all of these movies, including its peers like Gravity and Interstellar. However, the latter movies have fairly tense action scenes.
Ad Astra has these but they’re never as invested as those moments where the main character dwells on his feelings. There’s even a somewhat heavy voice-over to underscore these scenes. Gray does throw in some action scenes (the most intense being a sort of dune buggy chase on the moon as our characters are attacked by ‘moon pirates’) but I don’t know how necessary they are. I think the most effective use of special effects is when Gray dwells on his signature self-reflective cinematography by evoking how lonely and beautiful the asteroid belts around Neptune can be, for example.
A Toronto reviewer claims that this movie is Apocalpyse Now (or more accurately Heart of Darkness) set in space and I could see moments of that – Apocalypse Now is certainly a key seventies film for many directors – but the final encounter with Roy’s father (our Kurtz if you will) never really lives up to these expectations. I felt that Gray’s last film, The Lost City of Z, was way more Apocalypse Now-ish with its lush, mesmerizing tropical scenes and the eerie mental mindset evoked by a good cinematographer and sound editor.
All in all, Ad Astra is an interesting addition to the canon of contemporary art sci-fi. It seems to somehow occupy the space between a smaller concept film like Duncan Jones’ Moon and the larger SFX offerings like Gravity or Interstellar. It’s an okay addition to Gray’s oeuvre but I don’t know that it needed to be a sci fi film at all. However, if vaunted directors each take turns putting out these neo sci fi art films and that keeps the genre alive, hearkening back to those concept sci fi films of the seventies, I say keep ‘em coming!