James Gray's sci-fi epic is always reaching for the stars, but finds itself inextricably overshadowed by films that came before.
Brad Pitt is having a busy 2019. His usual cool performance style was on display in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now, his serious, sombre side can be seen in director James Gray’s new film Ad Astra: a breathtaking science fiction adventure that shoots ambitiously for greatness, yet falls under the shadow of previous sci-fi movies of this scale.
Pitt is Major Roy McBride, son of famed astronaut H. Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). As part of a mission in search of intelligent life, Clifford hasn’t be heard from for 16 years. However, after a particularly intense sequence where Roy plummets to Earth after a mysterious power surge, U.S. Space Command finds that Clifford may still be alive. And so, Roy is tasked to travel to Mars and establish contact with his father in order to prevent the potential extinction of humankind. As with most big screen sci-fi, there is an expectation for spectacle and visuals that beg for the IMAX experience. Gray definitely delivers on this front. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography shimmers as Saturn and Mars engulf the frame. Shots glide over the moon before delving into its crevices to reveal a hidden man-made metropolis. Ad Astra acutely captures the isolation of space, whilst a haunting score from Max Richter drifts between sweeping orchestration and eerie, lonesome synths.
Gray strives to be introspective and poetic in a sense akin to Terrence Malick and Lynne Ramsay. Very rarely does the camera ever move into wides. Instead, the film is dominated by close-ups of Roy, informing us that this is his story and his story alone. Battling demons of his own, Pitt broods in contemplation of his relationships with both father and estranged wife Eve (Liv Tyler). Monologues in voiceover seem to be inspired by The Tree of Life, which Pitt also starred in, as he makes the long journey towards the red planet.
All of this might sound a little too familiar to sci-fi veterans. The marriage between grandeur and poeticism doesn’t quite gel at times. This isn’t helped by Roy deliberately being written as an emotionless, generally unengaging character, one who is quite hard to relate to. Further voiceovers range from typical plot exposition to seemingly unnecessary observations. It almost hits breaking point when Roy finds himself searching a scene of devastation, picks up an object, and the narration chimes in with “what happened here?” Whether this overt approach is Gray’s intention is uncertain.
Already it’s been described as ‘Apocalypse Now in space’, but maybe add in Gravity, Interstellar and even High Life for good measure. It’s true that, moment to moment, Ad Astra can be thrilling and beautiful to watch. The opening set piece is terrific, though there is a frequent feeling of déjà vu which Gray and Pitt are never fully able to overcome.
It makes for an uneven narrative that looks to be hurdling towards the cliché when, suddenly, everything seems to click together. The story becomes more emotionally investing during a decisive turning point at the start of the second half. The poetic aspects finally find a place alongside the epic. It’s an impressive performance from Pitt: understated and withdrawn, but with good reason. Even if its trajectory is heavily foreshadowed, the film still manages to produce a thrilling climax. It may not be the masterpiece hyped at Venice but, regardless, Ad Astra proves an entertaining voyage into deep space full of visual splendour.
Ad Astra (2019), directed by James Gray, is distributed in the UK by 20th Century Fox, certificate 12A.