Writer-director James Gray is nothing if not bold. He dared to tackle a non-cynical romantic triangle in Two Lovers and a return to “high adventure” in The Lost City of Z. Neither film found the audience it deserved. With Ad Astra he has ventured into outer space, fully aware of the pitfalls: being compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. He needn’t have worried.
In fashioning an intelligent space drama for grownups he found inspiration and a through-line in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its modern-day equivalent, Apocalypse Now. He also found the perfect actor to serve as his space traveler. The part fits Brad Pitt like a glove, and he delivers one of his finest, most nuanced performances.
The time is the near future and Pitt is an astronaut of the first rank who is sent on a highly classified mission: to investigate a series of deadly power surges that are apparently emanating from Neptune. The agency known as SpaceCom hands Pitt this assignment not only because he is rock-steady and reliable but because they fear that the source of the attacks may be his father, who’s been missing and presumed dead for sixteen years. (Nothing in the film is at it appears at first, which is why the less you know going in, the better off you’ll be.)
Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross propel their story ever forward with a canny mélange of action, suspense, and a meditation on loneliness and the meaning of a man’s life. The result is consistently absorbing without being pretentious. It’s a rare look at the future that isn’t downbeat or completely dystopian, although there is no lack of social commentary. In the unnamed year of this story one can fly commercially to the moon, but the sights that greet the traveler upon arrival are less than heartening.
The climactic portion of the film is existential and understandably so. Our hero encounters a vision of the man he might become and has to decide whether or not to embrace that reality. It’s rare—and bracing—to find this kind of content in a major studio movie.
Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and Ruth Negga give strong performances in key supporting roles, with Liv Tyler seen fleetingly as Pitt’s neglected wife, just one casualty of the career that drives him.
The look of Ad Astra is remarkable in its seeming simplicity. There’s nothing that can’t be achieved in a photorealistic manner nowadays. Gray has taken full advantage of that in offering us a matter-of-fact approach to life on earth, in a rocket, on a space station, across the surface of the moon, even amidst the rings of Saturn. It’s worth acknowledging cinematographer Hoyte von Hoytema, production designer Kevin Thompson, and visual effects supervisor Allen Maris among the many people who collaborated on this ambitious endeavor.
Ad Astra is further proof, if any were needed, that James Gray is one of our foremost, and most original, filmmakers. We already knew that Brad Pitt is an exceptional leading man but this performance burnishes that reputation. The film is among this year’s very best.