James Gray is perhaps best known for his New York movies. From the early independently-minded crime dramas such as Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007) through to miniature masterpiece Two Lovers (2008) — a small scale, hard hitting love triangle starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vinessa Shaw and Gwyneth Paltrow. By the time his wrenching 2013 Ellis-island melodrama The Immigrant, Gray could stretch his budget to recreate his home city circa 1921. It wasn’t until his fifth feature film, The Lost City of Z that the director ventured outside of the five boroughs. Set once again in the 1920s, this time he expanded his canvas for an epic of obsession and exploration, as he chronicled the Amazonian adventures of British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett.
With The Lost City of Z, Gray found beauty, grace and mystery in Fawcett’s ill-fated tunnel-vision questing. It’s a lovely, complex picture, twisted up with the evils of colonialism and the naive child-like purity of the impulse to explore. Ad Astra sees the director operating further from New York than ever. Following two films set in the past, Gray seems to have the confidence to move forwards, enlisting the considerable talents of Brad Pitt for a near-future space odyssey that scratches deeper into the themes of obsession and fatherhood found in The Lost City of Z. The director has a much larger budget here — and boy does he make use of it — but his primary concerns remain intimate and personal.
We’re introduced to Pitt’s astronaut, Roy McBride, working hundreds of miles in the sky at the tip of a needle-like space station that juts from the earth’s surface into the beginnings of the cosmos. Suddenly a wave of explosions ripple across the station and McBride is sent hurtling towards terra firma. Following a few dicy moments in which the astronaut struggles to stay conscious, a parachute just about breaks his fall. It turns out a phenomenon emanating from the far reaches of the solar system is responsible for the explosions. News agencies are dubbing it “The Surge.” A military debrief follows and we learn that the uber cool McBride’s heartbeat has never exceeded 80BPM — even allowing for the recent excitement — and that authorities believe that his father (Tommy Lee Jones) is responsible for the The Surge.
Long presumed dead, the pioneering hero Doctor Clifford McBride was last known to be heading for Neptune in search of intelligent life. Nothing had been heard from him or his crew for 16 years. Military chiefs task the younger McBride with making contact from a base on Mars and pack him off via a commercial flight to the Moon so as not to attract attention. From there the stage is set for an episodic adventure that borrows significantly from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Gray might replace the Nùng River with the solar system, but he plots a course of similar madness and incident as McBride plows on towards a showdown with his father.
Ad Astra almost pulsates, with breathless set pieces alternating with mysterious tones and explosive crescendos. On the Moon, McBride has just a moment to watch dust flick through his fingers before a thrilling moonbuggy chase sees pirates hunt down his covert military convoy. A routine stop to check out a Mayday distress call results in an encounter with a “research primate” straight out of a horror movie. Meanwhile, escape from Mars requires McBride to sneak aboard a spacecraft via an underwater passage that’s rendered in staggering slo-mo beauty — Gray wisely enlisted Hoyte Van Hoytema to shoot the film, the cinematographer having proven his cosmic credentials on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
The film lacks the lived-in specificity that added texture to Gray’s New York movies, but the near-future setting allows room for jaw-dropping design work. Painted in deep blues and striking orange, Ad Astra takes elements of recognisable NASA paraphernalia and borrows liberally from 2001: A Space Odyssey and other pure science fiction works — though these influences are perhaps unavoidable. The gargantuan space craft and spectacular vistas are impressive but lo-tech setups are equally evocative. On Mars, a troubled McBride is meant to recuperate while enveloped in a room that features footage of birds, flowers and seascapes projected onto four blank walls. Another blank room is simply adorned with vintage furniture that’s so out of place as to be unsettling.
It’s production design that helps underscore the central thesis of the film. Ad Astra posits the idea that explorers and questers aren’t brave pioneers. Instead they’re cowardly; they lack the ability to properly live, love and engage with the world as it stands around them, choosing to run instead. It’s high-minded sci-fi that demands a certain tolerance for straight faced, earnest melodrama as Pitt and Jones each deliver their share of gruff, sincere lines that express the gravity of what is dynamically-speaking, a family drama of the most everyday kind. But that’s a price worth paying for this classically-styled hunk of big-budget grown up filmmaking. Gray is well known for his love of the great pieces of 1970s Hollywood cinema. It’s to his credit that Ad Astra feels similarly sturdy.