If NASA were to compile a list of promotional videos for an astronaut recruitment program, they’d probably be better off steering clear of anything in James Gray’s Ad Astra. Man’s exploration of outer space isn’t portrayed in the most favourable light in Gray’s cosmic latest, with the film’s star Brad Pitt being constantly thrown into highly stressful situations, pressured into venturing to the edge of the galaxy to find his (presumed dead) father, and generally having a pretty miserable time.
As a filmmaker, Gray has turned out a number of consistently impressive features over the years while simultaneously remaining just under the pop-culture radar, films like We Own the Night, The Immigrant, and The Lost City of Z showing his impressive genre versatility and ability to excel in mid-budget projects. This latter point is something Gray is personally passionate about, recently telling Little White Lies that mid-budget features are “where the most beautiful work was always done” and that it allows directors to “pursue a little bit of subversion and a little bit of what moved them, coupled with scale.”
This idea of more creative freedom and minimal studio interference, while also being granted the keys to a considerable budget, lies at the centre of what makes Ad Astra the phenomenal film that it is, and, possibly, Gray’s masterwork. For despite having all the trappings of a big-budget space adventure (Action packed trailer? Check. Global marketing campaign? Check. Big star power, à la Pitt? Check.), Ad Astra consistently settles into independent filmmaking territory, an auteur’s creation, a complete vision that is realised on screen in a truly visceral and truly stunning manner.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, an esteemed astronaut whose father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) was also a prestigious and much-celebrated pioneer of space exploration. After Roy falls from a space antenna following a worldwide power surge, he is informed that not only may his father still be alive, but he may be responsible for the surges. Shocked by this information, but burying this shock deep inside his psyche (more on this later), Roy is dispatched to Neptune to investigate his father’s whereabouts and return him to Earth.
But just as Claire Denis’ High Life was not really about space and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris was not really about space, so is James Gray’s Ad Astra not really about space at all. While there are some intriguing ruminations thrown in here and there about the future of space travel and man’s impact on every environment he conquers (Pitt flies, via a Virgin Atlantic flight, to the moon, where he finds fast food chains, shopping malls, and all the other classic indicators of consumerist mayhem), the true focus is always on Roy and the overwhelming influence of his father.
Pitt’s narration, scattered throughout the film, gradually reveals to us the true nature of this relationship, the deep wounds that his father has left him with. As he ventures deeper into space and further towards Clifford, his realisations about his father’s toxic influence gain a new clarity and send him further and further into his downward emotional spiral. This journey of emotional discovery is, by turns, utterly compelling and completely devastating to watch
There is a slightly disarming mixture of weightlessness and gravity to the film, on both a physical and emotional level, a feeling which increases greatly as Roy nears the truth of his journey. A series of surreal events occur on his venture to his destination, but, throughout all of this, we are a part of Roy’s singular, cold-hearted, and deeply troubled world.
He has to complete constant psychiatric evaluations to check that he is mentally prepared for the task, the words of the computerised system burying deep into him as he is asked over and over again whether he is feeling ok, whether he is ready for his mission. The term “toxic masculinity” has been used a lot in reference to this film, but I actually feel that, considering the sheer breadth and depth of issues addressed within Ad Astra, this phrase almost feels slightly limited, not quite recognising the true mastery of Gray’s scope and the range of emotions that the film touches on.
Solemn, self-absorbed, self-doubting, driven, Pitt is in sensational form here as he depicts Roy’s struggles with his dark revelations to brutally powerful effect. While some of the film’s narration feels a tad unnecessary and heavy handed, with the occasional sense that some stuff could be better off shown instead of told, Pitt’s performance more than offsets these frustrations. Supporting performances from Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, and, of course, Tommy Lee Jones, are all excellent, but this is ultimately Pitt’s film from beginning to end.
Complementing Pitt’s performance is the stunning work by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose previous body of work includes Dunkirk, Her, Nolan’s upcoming release Tenet, and, most significant in this context, Interstellar. This latter project made Hoytema ideal for Ad Astra, his stunning cosmic visuals from Nolan’s galaxy tracking adventure carried into Gray’s film with incredible results.
The film’s few action scenes are shot with a kinetic energy that captures both the tension of such sequences and the weightless nature of the planetary settings, perfectly complementing the aforementioned friction between the story’s grounded but slightly ethereal vibe. Hoytema and Gray also seek to both center and sideline Roy in his own story, inserting stunning wide-scale shots to emphasise the vast emptiness of space and man’s inconsequential role in it all.
At its heart, Ad Astra is about the black hole of emotion that exists within Roy and it’s origins within his father and their relationship. What Gray does so brilliantly is marry the film’s setting to its meaning so completely, the vast, almost claustrophobic ,and ever advancing loneliness of space reflecting Roy’s ever-increasing insecurities and self-destructive tendencies.
It’s therefore sad to see that this film may be falling victim to the increasingly typical problem of mis-marketing, a number of people seemingly going in expecting to see a straight action film (leading to a B- cinemascore).
I can only hope that people might re-assess Ad Astra in years to come, because this film deserves so much more than it is currently getting. Having seen this two days ago, I still don’t think I’ve fully recovered from the experience… this film really did knock me for an intergalactic six. Phenomenal.