You wouldn’t know it from the trailers for this film, but James Gray is one of the best working American filmmakers. The Immigrant contains one of the greatest final shots in cinema history, We Own the Night contains one of the best car chase sequences, and his last film The Lost City of Z was one of my favorites of 2017 (I seem to be in the minority of people who adore Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s masterpiece). The trailers make Ad Astra look like a knockoff of Interstellar and not another great original work from a filmmaker of Gray’s ability. This film sees Gray take his introspective talents to space to explore the relationship between our sense of humanity and outer space.
Ad Astra takes place in the near future, where space travel across the solar system is somewhat of a norm. After a catastrophic event on Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent on a mission to find his father – an astronaut who went missing years ago on a secret project – across the solar system and stop him.
There are wells of sorrow behind Brad Pitt’s eyes. The magic in his performance here comes from how hard he tries to hide it from himself and us. He reads off psychological reports repeatedly that he sells well but doesn’t believe. I love it when an actor can tell you everything without saying a word. Pitt does that here. He is a man at war with himself, between his duties and his emotions, and you feel that conflict in each action and look he gives. In the rare moments he is honest with himself, you feel the gravity of the action. It’s another high in Pitt’s career with very few lows. Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga each contribute solid supporting turns – particularly Jones for reasons I can’t reveal.
I eagerly awaited the credits to find out who shot this. I should have known that Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Dunkirk, Her) did his magic on this film. He takes the lessons learned from his work on Interstellar and manages to not do a simple redo of that film’s look. His is a heavenly vision of space and humanity. The reflection off space helmets reveals black holes where faces are. The way a video of Roy’s father bleeds over his face tells multitudes. Images in this film stick with you, you’re never getting a scene that is complacently shot for just coverage. Gray and Hoytema use celluloid to capture light and absence from space wondrously. It’s impressive to me that Hoytema managed to shoot two beautiful looking space films completely differently. Here’s to hoping he does more work with James Gray. There is an ethereal quality to Max Richter’s score, capturing the isolation of space. Add Lorne Balfe into the mix and you’ve got two great composers on this film. The production design is breathtaking. Each set, each bit of scenery, is inspired and lived in. If this doesn’t get a production design nod at the Oscars, then I just don’t know what we’re doing here anymore.
My knock on the film is the voice-over. Throughout the film, Brad Pitt will narrate what his character is thinking. It does not belong. The voice-over does an absolute disservice to both Gray’s ability to give you the necessary information visually as well as Pitt’s ability to give you just enough to lock in with what his character is thinking. The voice-over is simply unnecessary, and a detriment to the magnificent work here. Everything you need to know, they are already giving you. The voice-over only snaps you out of the film distractingly. I would not be surprised to find out if this was something forced on Gray by the studio, namely Disney – who acquired the film in their purchase of 20th Century Fox. It reminds me of the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, the voice-over just hurts the film. There is something crass about having to give more money to Disney – who have made clear their only intentions are sequels/spinoffs/remakes – in order to encourage them and others in Hollywood to make original films, but that’s where we’re at now.
Like Gray’s other films, the more I sit with it, the more I’m sure I’ll like it (and I already really like it). There is grace and majesty in nearly every image when it comes to Gray’s filmography. The nods here to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now are self-evident and unapologetic, yet never out-of-turn in a way that could derail the originality at work here. This film has many silly scenarios – space pirates on the moon, fighting a primate in space, surfing a metal frame through an asteroid field – that Gray somehow makes feel grounded and immediate. I got quite emotional in the third act, there are several beautiful and cathartic moments that broke right through me. I wish I could go into further detail, because I could analyze the sequence all day, but I don’t want to spoil anything other than prepare to get a little misty-eyed. Is our capacity for humanity intrinsically linked to being on Earth? Do we lose our humanity the farther we travel from this planet? Can we find comfort in the discovery that there is no intelligent life out there, that we are all we got? Gray asks life’s most grand questions about humanity in his films. I don’t know if there is an answer, but I know that we are all we got.