James Gray takes us on a breathtaking sci-fi journey in his latest film Ad Astra, with Brad Pitt impressing in a restrained performance as an emotionally fractured man wrestling with daddy issues
James Gray’s last feature, The Lost City of Z, took us deep into the dark heart of the Amazon. With new film Ad Astra, this talented American filmmaker casts us towards the heavens in a daring space-adventure full of moon-buggy pirates and space-apes.
Gray and fellow screenwriter Ethan Gross make sure that, behind all the awe-inspiring shots of the solar system, the focus is squarely on the human drama. Grounded in Gray’s exploration of intimacy, heroism and the hubris of man, there’s as much heart as spectacle on display.
Brad Pitt is Major Roy McBride, a man who prides himself on being able to compartmentalise his life. During his childhood 29 years earlier, his legendary astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones) abandoned him for the Lima Project – an expedition to the rings of Saturn. This leads McBride Jr to dedicate his life to his own career and little else. His heart rate never rises above 80bpm, and he passes every psychological evaluation with flying colours. Above all, nothing gets in the way of his mission, including his wife (Liv Tyler), who only appears in ghostly flashbacks. McBride is high-functioning and calm in the most life-threatening moments, but closed-off emotionally. As we soon learn, he’s a gasket ready to blow.
Sci-fi enthusiasts may need to suspend their disbelief, as Gray doesn’t get too caught up in the 'sci' part. There’s no spiel on how humanity can seemingly travel billions of miles in months rather than decades. Nor is there an explanation for why Brad Pitt’s character never ages a day, save for a little beard growth. Time is a slippery concept in this film. It all verges on the ridiculous, but Gray’s steady hand guides the objectives of his mission.
It transpires that Earth is under threat from mysterious solar flares that are causing blackouts across the globe. Those in charge believe McBride Sr is responsible and Roy is commanded by his superiors to go to Mars to send a personal message to his long-lost father. It’s a reunion that Roy greets with equal amounts of dread and joy. He asks questions that he’s not certain he wants the answer to. “What did he find out there? Did it break him? Or was he always broken?”
On his 2.7-billion-mile journey, McBride encounters Lantos, a Mars-born government lackey played by Ruth Negga, with whom he shares similar psychological scars. In scenes that crackle with emotion, Gray wisely provides a much-needed female counterpoint to McBride, beginning Ad Astra's emotionally turbulent journey final-third.
Pitt’s performance is low-key yet manages to convey McBride's inner turmoil. The voiceover, worthy of a Malick film, is restrained, but builds the portrait of McBride’s brittle psychology. In a summer that also saw Pitt give a remarkable performance in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, he has bested himself in this portrayal of an emotionally fractured man wrestling with daddy issues. It’s a role that will likely see him in contention come awards season.
Gray takes us on a breath-taking journey in Ad Astra, reminding us that even at the edge of the galaxy it is our ability to hope and forgive that defines our humanity.
Released by 20th Century Fox