Synopsis – Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.
My Take – While anyone who might have glanced at the trailers of this James Gray directorial might end up thinking that this film is just going to add on to the past decade’s list of high-profile space thrillers like Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), and First Man (2018), but I can contentedly confirm, this is not the science fiction film you think it is.
Yes, anyone expecting a film on the lines of a holiday blockbuster might be disappointed, but any fan of art expressed through cinema, I assure you, won’t be.
Premiering at this year’s Venice Film Festival, James Gray’s film, driven by some of the greatest acting Brad Pitt has ever done, is a 122-minute cinematic odyssey chronicles a journey through the vastness of the cosmic unknown, while decoding the darkness that comes with the conflicting voyage of self-acceptance.
Though principally a meditative experience, the film also makes room for some superb suspense sequences, resulting in a thought-provoking film with life-or-death stakes.
From films like Two Lovers to The Immigrant to The Lost City of Z, director Gray has always produced excellent yet underrated works, but, here, the seventh film of his 25-year career, is a huge step up, in terms of ambition, scope and execution, a film which feels destined for major love in the coming awards season.
Set in the near future, the story follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a highly capable astronaut who all his life has had difficulty being close to people specifically, his ex, Eve (Liv Tyler), who’s always taken a backseat to his work. Soon after has narrowly evading death during an accident on the International Space Antenna, caused by a cosmic power surge, the US government recruits Roy for a top secret mission related to the Lima Project led by pioneer Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), his father who has been presumed dead for the past twenty-six years.
Clifford McBride was the first human to reach both Jupiter and Saturn and a veteran of several deep space missions, which made him the perfect candidate to lead the Lima Project, a deep space mission that would put a team in orbit around Neptune, beyond the influence of the Sun’s radiation, to scan the universe for extraterrestrial intelligence. Unfortunately, all contact with the mission was lost soon and the team was considered at the very least to be missing in action.
But now the government believes that this cataclysmic energy bursts hurtling toward Earth, threatening the planet’s survival, emanates from the same spot where Clifford was in orbit. Believing that the renowned astronaut is alive and gone rogue, the officials require Roy to travel to Mars with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), Clifford’s former colleague, and send a series of messages by focused laser transmission in an attempt to make contact with his father, and make him shut everything down.
Just minutes in, a majestic, and technically brilliant, fall from an international space antenna launches the film into a realm of its own. A later scene, involving a buggy chase between the US government and space pirates across the dark side of the moon, including a delightfully bonkers outing from a man-eating baboon, adds to the film’s gravitational pull. Known for making intimately scaled epics, it may not surprise that director James Gray’s film retains the epic, but it’s in rendering his space odyssey as intimate as he does that makes it such an impressive achievement.
With a script he co-wrote with Ethan Gross, here, director Gray examines how a father can affect the life of his son even when he’s not present. The ambitious script reaches far beyond most Hollywood sci-fi films, striking a balance between a harrowing otherworldly discovery, and a beautifully complex narrative weighing up how much our parents shape our destiny. The film immerses us in the subjectivity of a man at once made and broken by the parent he seeks to find.
The introverted Roy is not easy to know. The most we hear out loud from him are in periodic psychological evaluations he dictates to an automated recording on a tablet. The viewer’s way into his head is through a perpetual narration, but his musings only scratch the surface, guided by a clinical self-awareness that only further deflects from his depths of feeling, trauma, and veiled self-hatred.
Yes, the film has an unusual pace to it, and has only a few action sequences, but the core of the film is the psychological state of son versus absent father. Roy’s inability to connect with loved ones is displayed through flashbacks involving his wife Eve, and it’s his own narration that provides us much more insight than his regularly scheduled psychological tests. Here, director Gray looks through the telescope at human limitations and explores uncharted worlds that affect the inferiority of a man’s soul.
The film largely resists wowing us with its vision of a more technologically advanced society. Instead, director Gray focuses on the nuts-and-bolts of space travel, grounding the events in realism. The strategy is a wise one, suggesting that the film is less interested in fantasy than in using the cold vastness of the universe as an allegory for the depth of Roy’s spiritual isolation. And while this is Pitt’s film, the supporting cast, though little-used, complement the somber, naturalistic tone, give Clifford a nearly mythic grandeur that has crippled Roy all his life.
This isn’t to say that the film is short on spectacle. Given a sizeable budget for the first time in his career, director Gray puts it all on screen. Sequences on Mars, shot in shadowy orange glows, are wonderful to look at. Here, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema is reaching new heights of creativity in his artistic vision, which easily differentiates his present work from the likes of Interstellar. Special reference must be made to the beautifully generated special effects, which really make this film a contender for the most realistic depiction of space, as director Gray himself had in mind. And along with Kevin Thompson’s stellar production design, and Max Richter’s striking score, it all comes together to form a perfect constellation.
As anyone could have guessed, the film rests completely on Brad Pitt’s shoulders, who delivers a career best performance without isolating the viewer or overplaying his nuanced role. Here, Pitt deftly articulates the mixture of anger, love and betrayal coursing through the character as he gets closer to this possible reunion with his father, who may be able to fill an indecipherable void within him.
The support cast has little to do but manage to make the most of it. Donald Sutherland is likable as always and Tommy Lee Jones, though seen mostly in dated photographs and video messages, manages to leave a looming presence throughout the film. While Ruth Negga has a nice turn as Helen Lantos, one of the key officials at the Mars space station, Liv Tyler packs a punch in her small role. On the whole, ‘Ad Astra’ is a gorgeous sci-fi that is uplifted by its masterfully thought-provoking drama and a superb turn from Brad Pitt.
Directed – James Gray
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 122 minutes