The search for truth on an astronomical scale, James Gray’s space epic is a thought provoking deep dive into expectation and self determination.
Gray’s last film, The Lost City of Z, followed explorer Percy Fawcett’s 1925 expedition into Amazonia in a part originally written with Brad Pitt in mind. In Ad Astra he finally takes Gray’s lead in a similar role, as astronaut Roy McBride searching for his father (Tommy Lee Jones), another famed astronaut lost on a decades long mission to Neptune attempting to make contact with life outwith our solar system.
In Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross’ beautifully written world the moon is just a commercial flight away, but the Earth is suffering from massive electromagnetic disturbances originating near Neptune, so Roy is sent to venture into the far reaches of space to investigate, with hopes of finding his father.
Much of Ad Astra is framed in a way that suggests a genuinely possible future, as opposed to the often too far-fetched sci-fi film – with emphasis on the fiction. This is where it works particularly well. Instead of plucking new concepts and devices out of thin air and just expecting you to go with it, Gray uses aspects of society we already know turned up a notch. The mundanity of his lunar and martian colonies, treated like common airports serve as a warning should we lose sight of our achievements as a society. The Moon and Mars, once beacons of hope are now dull bases where there are rooms designed solely to comfort and re-energise us from their inherent sterile bleakness – where otherwise, the only colour to be found is in neon advertising signs.
Pitt has already enjoyed a summer hit in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but Ad Astra is a far more taxing and ultimately rewarding role. McBride is an incredibly calm and pragmatic man, well suited to Pitt’s cool image, on-screen and off. The strongest aspects of his performance are his narrated inner thoughts, painting a hollow life without a father. He is at his most honest when alone, which is often, where his insecurities have chipped away at his personality, leaving a cold and efficient worker. He is a hero to the world but in his own words is “always looking for the exit”, even in the most celebratory of audiences, and despite his own strong views towards his father, immediately takes on the job regardless of his relationship to the subject.
The dynamic between Roy and his father is the heart of the film, and the fact that their interactions past and present, are restricted, is testament to how well written and performed these characters are. To have both leads a solar system apart still providing an engaging arc, each defined by the actions of the other is impressive. Few words are actually spoken by Pitt, acting primarily with his face and body language, but still so obviously matched up to the difficult or sensitive unravellings being narrated.
Like most of Gray’s films Ad Astra maintains a strong artistic element, be that in dialogue, visuals, soundscape or anywhere else. Adding the eye of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar) a cinematographer particularly gifted at portraying the future, contributes significantly to the striking visuals of Gray and Gross’ super-digital world. Minus any distinct musical themes or cues composed by Max Richter no less, all focus is placed on the physical and emotional happenings of the film.
McBride’s gradual pursuit of his father is never dull, but intriguing and often unexpected where there are moments that slip seamlessly into other genres and subtly reference other films. Lots of comparisons to Interstellar have been made but Ad Astra is far more blinkered in terms of perspective and thought. Similarities with Apocalypse Now are more obvious, but even still, Ad Astra floats in its own distinct little bubble, exploring familial ties very deeply and sharing a looser association to either film than the marketing would suggest.
Much like life from the perspective of McBride, even during moments of great intensity and greater danger, Ad Astra is never far away from calm collectiveness and deep thought. Whether it be about the decisions of one man or the broader decisions of mankind, it is graceful without being evangelical or scientific, showcasing a strong and welcome change of territory for Gray and an inspiring performance from Brad Pitt, who evidently still has a lot to give.