DIRECTOR: JAMES GRAY| SCREENPLAY: JAMES GRAY, ETHAN GROSS | STARRING: BRAD PITT, TOMMY LEE JONES, LIV TYLER, RUTH NEGGA, DONALD SUTHERLAND | RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 18TH
Ad Astra has a lot in common with space epics that precede it; it's grandiose, oppressive in its vastness, and beautiful. Brad Pitt gives a wonderfully solemn performance. It's not very original.
Writer-director James Gray's gorgeous drama stars Pitt as Roy McBride, an emotionally closed-off space veteran sent on a secret mission to find his father, national hero Clifford McBride (Jones) who went missing in deep space fourteen years prior. Now, mysterious power surges are destroying Earth's equipment – and threatening life itself, because, stakes – and seem to originate from the Neptune region, which is McBride Sr.'s last known location.
The powers that be, worried their man has gone rogue, enlist Roy to make contact with his old man. And so begins a two-hour journey across the stars to reunite an absent, possibly unhinged father and his damaged, definitely very sad, son.
Pitt gives an incredibly understated performance, anger and grief roiling beneath his manicured, collected exterior. Close-ups are used to great effect to chart even the smallest fractures in Roy's composure. It's a shame then that, despite Pitt's sensitive portrayal, the voice-over barges through all that. It isn't clear whether it's the audience or the actor whom Gray does not trust, but he seems to believe every single moment needs to be spelled out. “I've been trained to compartmentalise,” Pitt's voice declares, because that wasn't at all clear.
That's not to say every instance of narrative musing is unnecessary, but moments like these throw the tone off balance enough to prove distracting, and maybe even a little insulting. Maybe the studio was just scared of such a quiet film.
It's also quiet in the sense that, by the end, not much is being said thematically. Ad Astra believes it's asking big questions about existential loneliness, anchored in a more personal place. Yet where Interstellar and Gravity work both these planes in tandem, Gray's film loses its mythic elements to an old-fashioned story about a son afraid of becoming his father. The grander themes end up sounding sadly hollow.
However, none of this detracts from the fact that the cinematography is magnificent. Radiant shots of Neptune’s rings are contrasted by endlessly black voids, monuments to human achievement are set against the unromantic banality of extra-terrestrial colonies. No surprise given Hoyte van Hoytema was also the cinematographer on Interstellar and Dunkirk. The visual artistry is matched by Max Richter’s slow and minimalist score, contributing to the meditative state Ad Astra sustains.
At the end of the day, Ad Astra is beautiful but lacks any lasting impact. The premise is stale, and Gray doesn’t make much effort to go beyond genre archetypes, particularly when it comes to its thematic explorations. Ad Astra stays far too close to Earth, and that’s to its detriment.