Director: James Gray
Writers: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
The outer reaches of space are a dark expanse wherein we know nothing but distant stars and ice cold planets. Anything could be out there: artificial life, water, asteroids. But what James Gray looks for in his new film Ad Astra is the resolution for a quandary as old as dramatic theatre itself. Is the son destined to be like the father?
The levels of transcendence beyond the mundanity of the everyday are not unfamiliar territory for Gray, whose last film The Lost City of Z was one of the best films of 2016. In this new production he takes his story outside the stratosphere and into the planetary regions of Jupiter and Neptune.
Brad Pitt – his hair refreshed from the wind-swept days of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – plays Roy McBride, a steely and respected astronaut whose doughy face belies deep-rooted turmoil. His heartrate never raises above eighty, they say. The man is a legend, but not quite on the level of his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). McBride, many years previously was the captain of the Lima Project, a massive venture to the cosmos in search of extra-terrestrial life. He was the first man to reach Jupiter and Saturn. But sixteen years into the mission he and his crew vanished without a trace. Now, back on Earth, a series of Surges – atmospheric tornados – believed to be bolstered by the antimatter used to power the Lima Project, are causing havoc and threaten to destroy all life in the known universe. Is this the last trace of McBride and his lost crew?
In steps the younger McBride, tasked with going in search of his father on a covert mission to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. In a series of introspective longueurs padded out by slow-moving action sequences, McBride moves through space on a Conradian journey into the travails of his own mind as much as the dark recesses of space.
What could have been a measured drama playing the dangers of space travel with the urgency of broken family connections, quickly becomes flimsy, over-indulgent, and self-important. An early chase sequence on the Moon is so slow and guileless as to be nearly laughable. Gray’s direction is quite ham-handed so that when one particular character is killed, the audience does not know find out who until a few minutes later. There are other flaws with the direction the film takes, as many characters come and go, some appearing for no more than a minute or two with no great significance.
The film’s release was delayed by a few months, leading to rumours of studio meddling. Perhaps this accounts for the uneven use of Pitt’s breathy narration, reminiscent of Harrison Ford in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. The voiceover does work in parts and allows the viewer into the centre of Pitt’s thoughts and feelings when there are no other indicators to go by, but for much of the film’s running time the performance by Pitt on-screen and the somber tones of the narration are at odds. At times, Pitt seems to be lost on screen, scrambling for an emotion or a gesture to work with but with no help from the screenplay. I can imagine a prompt phonecall from an executive after seeing the first cut and insisting the film is too abstract and a voiceover should be added to clear up the narrative. But it doesn’t work and only lulls the viewer deeper into the film’s pretensions.
There is one montage sequence as Pitt courses through space where we see him alone, as isolated in space as he was on earth. This is the one strength of the film as we feel of sense of weight and timelessness float by. Gray measures out this part of the film with thought and skill. But just as I got involved in the film, the monotony returns. Pitt muses over his ex-lover played by Liv Tyler – although if you blink at the wrong times, you will miss her – and this is another aspect of the story that seems to be tacked on. Also, his confusion and regret about his relationship with his father provides nothing new for a thread so widely spun in other films and dramas. And when they finally collide the denouement is so clumsy and uninspiring it resembles a messy run-in from an old wrestling show.
Ad Astra is a film with lofty aspirations, but with soul and spectacle too unevenly intertwined, it succeeds in neither widening the eyes of the audience or engaging the brain either.