Hello all. It’s been a while. Too long. There are a number of reasons dear readers (well all 2 of you that is) for my absence. Quite frankly it has been a tough few months, with immense highs (I got engaged to my wonderful fiancée in June) and life changing lows (I lost my Dad back in July- a moment I’ve yet to fully process), so I never felt like I could spend that little bit of time to share my (unasked) for opinions on the films I’ve witnessed. And of course there have been plenty of those. But I thought now is the time to dip a toe back into the waters of critical expression and see where we wash up. What better film to kickstart things than one of my favourites of the year so far….
I need to be honest up front with you all. Ad Astra is pretty much a film built for me. Science Fiction has a big place in my heart, and ones focusing primarily in space even more so. Couple that with stunning effects, thrilling action beats and a tightly focused character drama, then you might as well just title this with the addendum Ad Astra: A Movie Hangover Gift. Well actually maybe not, that sounds pretty clunky. What is certainly not clunky is James Gray’s (The Lost City of Z) masterful slice of sci-fi. It’s a sorry state of affairs that these sort of films are becoming less likely than a Paul Thomas Anderson Marvel flick. Mid-budget genre films that favour smarts, heart and directorial ownership over splashy noise, the dreaded IP and big name stars. Well Ad Astra does have one of those, but Brad Pitt gives back tenfold with one of his best ever performances.
Pitt plays Roy McBride (a generic American name if ever I’ve heard one), a super talented astronaut with a record of immense success. One key to his soaring career is the fact that Roy is quite possibly the most relaxed fellow in existence, even when falling from the upper atmosphere in the films bravura opening sequence his BPM remains steadfast at 80 beats per minute. Despite the fact that that sort of flatlining would probably suggest he’s some sort of android, the film isn’t about to throw some unexpected twists your way. No there’s a very simple reason Roy is the way he is, and it’s something we’ve seen in other Space movies before, most recently in Damien Chazelle’s masterpiece First Man, he is a man utterly closed off from all human interaction. The film plays this perhaps not so subtly in Pitt’s measured almost emotionless voiceover, as he rallies against those around him attempting to make some sort of connection. His wife appears to have left him (Liv Tyler in a thankless role), and his encounters with others near him are fragmented, cold and empty. It can make Roy a rather hard protagonist to root for, or in fact even follow. I can imagine some in the audience will find his cold detachment too much to bear. Thankfully Pitt is far too good a performer to completely shut you out, and probably explains why Gray’s previous flick The Lost City of Z isn’t as strong as this one. Both tell similar tales of detached men on an impossible journey, the difference being Charlie Hunman is not quite as good an actor as Brad Pitt.
Yet there is a reason for all this distance. And it is one Gray seems to be innately drawn to. The relationship between father and son. We Own the Night dealt with a poisonous and powerful patriarch, the aforementioned Z morphed into a tale of legacies faced by your children, but Ad Astra is his deepest dive yet into the scars our fathers can leave on us. Roy McBride is somewhat a celebrity in the near future world portrayed here, for his dad is the legendary space explorer Clifford McBride. The first man to venture past Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, before becoming lost 16 years previously on a secret mission. It is said mission that kickstarts the film and Roy’s eventual journey. A series of power surges coming from deep space have left the Earth ravaged, and leading to that thrillingly stark opening wherein Roy tumbles towards the planet after a surge launches him off a space antenna. A statement of intent from director Gray here, the action is believably fraught (no sound in space), smartly staged and potently immediate. The camera spending as much time on Pitt’s anguished face as it does the well deployed effects. These surges turn out to be as a result of the Lima Project, a deep space mission headed up by Roy’s father. Something to do with anti-matter or some such. Ad Astra is strange in that it can be so hyper specific in its space flight portrayal and yet it keeps the details of its futuristic science deliberately vague. It doesn’t matter though, what is important is Roy has to now try to make contact with Dad, to hopefully end the turmoil, all the while coming to terms with the fact that the one person who was supposed to protect him just left to cross the universe.
Ad Astra wears its influences proudly but always mixes them into a space soup all its own. The further Roy journeys out, touching on Mars amongst other places, the deeper he dives within himself. Like the previously mentioned First Man, it takes the vastness of the galactic cosmos to illuminate the intimate, the humanity, the meaning of existence. I know I know, it all sounds rather heavy. But the mastery of Gray’s work here, who also writes alongside Ethan Gross, is his ability to also throw in such disparate elements of entertainment. A sojourn to the moon delivers us a rip-roaringly tense Moon buggy chase, coming out like some sort of Mad Max in a vacuum. Or an investigation into a distress call that introduces of all things killer monkeys!! There is even time for an Inception-riffing zero gravity fight scene. They work well to separate the deeper philosophical underpinnings. Sure a languidness exists here that may put some off, Gray isn’t in any rush and fosters an almost overbearing mood of tension, helped along by Max Richter’s beautifully sombre score.
Inception, First Man, 2001, are just some of the touchstones referenced within. Apocalypse Now even rears its head in the latter stages, as Roy draws nearer to the Colonel Kurtzsian stature of his stricken father. A towering Tommy Lee Jones, who manages to be both scarily formidable and pitifully broken. Gray has always had a gift with performers and he elicits strong work from Donald Sutherland (playing Roy’s ailing guardian) and Ruth Negga (coolly authoritative as a Mars based resident). But this is Pitts show and he brings it to the table. Playing distant and cold is a tricky one for an actor to balance, but here he brings the right level of subtlety. One that Gray maximizes with repeated close ups of his weathered face. Throughout his character is subjected to routine psychological evaluations, a tool used by the future NASA type agency he works for, to check the events are not causing him to become too emotional. It is a clever shorthand for Gray to portray Roy’s slowly developing loss of control, as rather inevitably that cool façade breaks and when it does it’s devastating. A moment on Mars as he attempts to make an intergalactic phonecall to Dad is so utterly moving, I couldn’t help but shed a tear. If I could get personal for a moment it shared a poignancy with my own grief, for while my dad was no astronaut in the far reaches of space, I felt the same desire as Roy to reconnect again, to see him that one last time. Pitt plays it with all his soul. Alas the Blade Runner type narration can occasionally caption his thought processes in a rather iteral manner.
In fact Blade Runner is perhaps one of the biggest touchstones I felt whilst watching it. Not just in the lofty ideas of what it means to be human, but more so in its staggeringly well realised vision of the future. This is a world only slightly ahead of our own. Space travel has become easy and commercialised. A moon base features holographic advertising and that token of capitalist dominance, a Starbucks. People are born on Mars, only knowing of Earth through virtual reality ‘calming’ rooms. The very agency Roy works for is a believable amalgamation of NASA and the highly militaristic might of Donald Trump’s idealistic Space Force, here called SpaceCom. There is no conveniently placed news report explaining all this, or a character awkwardly expositing it, it just exists. A confidence in world building that is all too rare in science fiction cinema. I haven’t even got onto the breathtaking visuals that almost demand this to be seen on the biggest screen possible. I’m always a fan of the shot of tiny spaceships being dwarfed by an interplanetary body that so many of these films use (Interstellar, Alien etc), and Ad Astra is no exception.
There are flaws should you wish to look for them of course. The glacial deliberate pace that is so rife in James Gray’s work is prevalent here and the lack of a female perspective appears to be becoming a problem for him. Once again we have a film of his framed from the POV of a white male with daddy issues. Yet I still found myself utterly entranced by it all. A film that tries to debate the biggest question of all, why are we here?! What is the meaning of it all? The answer he comes up with may seem trite to some. Yet it has power in its simplicity. Life is but a chance to make a connection, sometimes you just need to reach the end of infinity to realise it.
Verdict: James Gray cements himself as one of the great American directors with Ad Astra. Confident in its world building, realistic in its environments and loaded with palpable meaning, all anchored together with a best ever Brad Pitt performance. Also how can you not love a film with killer monkeys and meaning of life ponderance in the same breath.