Fittingly for a director with his name, James Gray films rarely look at the world in a black or white way. Strong, forceful emotions are often eschewed for a more measured point of view, an objective and clear-eyed vantage that can both be illuminating and frustratingly distant. This uneasy balance makes itself very present in Ad Astra, which takes Gray to deep space, a location that is a perfect match for his sensibilities, but also one in which he can occasionally lose his way. As a journey into the darkest possible heart of darkness, though, Ad Astra is formidable, and even better when it tells its story of fathers and sons.
Set in a mostly optimistic future in which humanity has successfully colonised the Moon and Mars – but brought all their earthly problems with them – Ad Astra finds this existence threatened when surges of powerful energy start hitting Earth, knocking out electronics and causing mass chaos. Assuming it’s the work of rogue interstellar scientist Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), US Space Command tasks Clifford’s son Roy (Brad Pitt) with reaching and stopping his dad, whose research station out by Neptune went dark 16 years ago. Yes, Ad Astra is a sci-fi adventure, with spaceships and antimatter and a brewing civil war on Mars, but its profound look at father-son relationships allows to be plenty of other things as well.
Buried within it are both a mythic tale of sins passed down generations and a far more relatable and affecting story of realising your parents are just people, same as you. These are potent themes, and it’s mostly left to Pitt to shoulder them, and he does a cracking, real movie star job. Roy McBride is not as much fun as Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s Cliff Booth, but Pitt still makes him a moving figure, especially in a controlled but infectiously melancholy breakdown as he reads a letter to a father who may or may not be listening.
Ad Astra is Pitt’s film through and through, with Jones (who is by turns genuinely chilling and sadly dishevelled) the only other actor getting anything approaching substantial screen time. Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga are here and gone in a flash, and Liv Tyler’s role is so small it barely even qualifies as a cameo. For a film with a canvas as wide as the entire solar system, the focus on Roy is remarkably tight, so our glimpses of the rest of the world he inhabits are tantalisingly brief.
Yet, despite Pitt’s best efforts, not every emotional crescendo lands as effectively as you’d like. Though the hits far, far outweigh the misses, Gray’s signature unsentimental style can sometimes conflict with the more openly sincere stuff in his and Ethan Gross’s script. It’s as if the film itself is embarrassed when someone has to mention ‘a threat to all life on Earth’ or during a somewhat unnecessary coda after the action has concluded. Gray wants to both keep you at arm’s length and dish out some serious feelings, and though it is hugely impressive how often he successfully strikes the balance, it can also be an imperfect compromise.
Ad Astra represents easily the biggest budget Gray has ever gotten to play with, and he makes the most of it with some stunning visuals. The cold blue glow of the outer solar system makes for a simply gorgeous backdrop, the costumes are perfect, and sets are incredible, particularly on Mars. In what is the film’s best sequence, Roy finds himself in a Martian recording studio that recalls the very best in 2001’s production design, reading bland, scripted messages whilst mysterious authority figures discuss him behind soundproof glass. It’s a truly transporting image.
From the vertigo-inducing opening fall from a space satellite all the way back to earth, the action (when it comes) is instantly involving. A low-gravity shootout against space pirates buzzing around the Moon’s surface on quadbikes is as fantastic as it sounds, and a battle against a genetically augmented baboon shows a welcome willingness to explore the unusual side of the future. Roy’s unflappable calm (his heart rate has never risen above 80bpm) in the face of these dangers creates a unique back and forth between stress and safety during these set-pieces, where the joy lies as much in his competency as it does in the out and out excitement. It all adds up to an exciting and immersive outer-space riff on Apocalypse Now that you should seek out on the biggest screen possible.