Writer/director James Gray (‘The Lost City of Z’) has been quietly making solid films in various genres since his breakout indie ‘Little Odessa’ in 1994. While none have had the Brad Pitt star power of his latest near future, space-set ‘Ad Astra’, it would be remiss not to point out that they also have had grand aspirations. His movies may not have the auteur flash of some of his current peers, but they are unique in their own way. Gray chooses to craft stories bereft of flashy turns in narrative, packaged in stately framed professional boxes, thus perhaps unfairly labeling him as a working, “adult” craftsman of old-fashioned cinema.
It’s readily apparent once the film begins that ‘Ad Astra’ is exactly the type of project that needs a steady hand, one that’s trusted by its star. Pitt occupies almost every frame as Roy McBride, a well-traveled astronaut famed almost as much for his uncanny ability to remain calm in the face of harrowing danger as he is for his heritage. He is the son of Tommy Lee Jones’ world-renowned space explorer, seen here in archival footage, who disappeared decades earlier on a monumental voyage to the edge of the solar system. He is viewed as a hero of exploration, a representation of man’s achievement, and a symbol of human desire to connect to intelligence beyond, but he’s regarded very differently by his son, both haunting and driving Roy’s every aspiration.
Roy is tasked by his superiors to take on a mission to gather evidence that his father survived his monumental excursion, after surges of anti-matter originating from Neptune affect the planet Earth in consequential and increasingly catastrophic ways. Thus sets off a narrative structure that owes explicitly to ‘Ad Astra’s forebears, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’ As Pitt’s Roy makes his way through his journey, he encounters sights both wondrous and mundane. Gray’s vision of the future and space exploration is very much rooted in the practical (Hudson News on the moon, bureaucracy on Mars) until it’s . . . not. The film threatens to go off the rails and begins to defy logic in its last third in a way that is jarring. Unfortunately this mars the steady and anticipatory world-building nature the film has constructed to this point. It’s moments of tension and sublimity are broken by an unnecessary voice-over and depressing nihilism, despite featuring some truly stunning visuals, sequences, and an incredible Brad Pitt-in-solitude performance . . .
Directed By: James Gray
Written By: James Gray & Ethan Gross
Running Time: 123 min.
* * * (out of four) -OR- B