“Ad Astra” marks the seventh feature film, but the first major mainstream film, by auteur James Gray. Most of his previous films were intimate films set in New York City, this one is a grand thinking man’s sci-fi film takes place in space. Even surpassing his previous film, the great “The Lost City of Z” that made my top 10 list of 2017, Gray’s sensibilities and filmmaking traits have allowed him to be one of the more interesting and unique America filmmakers working today.
Each of his films have a 70’s American quality about them. His films allow for great character depth than just moving a plot forward. Outside of his impressive characterizations, James Gray also utilized a strong visual style, the kind of striking compositions you would find in European art-house cinema. From the beautiful rooftop scenes in “Two Lovers”, of Joaquin Phoenix confessing his love to Gwyneth Paltrow in a deep overcast, to the beautiful rainy early morning chase sequence in “We Own the Night”, to of course the final shot of the camera looking out a window through Ellis Island in “The Immigrant”. James Gray has proven time and time again that he is one of the most essential and overlooked voices working in cinema today. His films offer great emotional depth along with strong visual flair.
Now with “Ad Astra”, James Gray attempts at a more contemplative, artful, and equally meditative space adventure that holds elements of Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”, that will more than likely polarize and alienate viewers just as Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of “Solaris” did. Brad Pitt echoing the masculine heroin type of 1950’s American cinema brings great charisma, warmth and humor to the role. Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who travels through the galaxy in search of his missing father named Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). “Space Cowboys” anyone?
Pitt and Gray together use a lot of of internalization of his character’s space exploration. We get a lot of deep thoughts, blank stares, and contemplation from Roy McBride, many of which echo the internalization of Nicholas Winding Refn, and of course the likes of other high-minded sci-fi films like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity”, and like “Solaris” (both versions mentioned above).
Like Soderbergh’s greatly overlooked “Solaris”, it his very ambitious, at times metaphysical and cerebral that is technically stellar that holds a lot of boldness and great vision. The film’s setting is in the future and space travel with humanity has reached a level of normalization. There is even an Applebbe’s and Subway on the moon. The moon becomes a consumerist replica of planet Earth, and there is even conflict with other nations from borders and territories. The great irony is how the society on the moon just ends up being re-created like Earth.
Roy is coerced into a secret meeting that informs him how the cosmic pulses that are leading to disasters occurring on earth that are killing thousands are possibly coming from the planet Neptune, where Clifford traveled to some years ago. Roy is ordered to travel to Mars to gain his father’s reception and to send him a message. Roy unable to successfully deliver the message takes matters into his own hands and actually continues his journey to Neptune in search of answers.
Along his travels we get bravura visual effects, astonishing sound design, and some stunning set-pieces that include Pitt floating in space. We also get some terrifying moments that reaches some levels of eeriness that has never been found in a Gray film. Sadly the film does suffer some missteps and setbacks, one involving a plot element involving crew members and a space monkey that. comes off laughable and just questionably executed and written.
James Gray repeats his themes on isolation that have been found in his previous work. Though the tone of the film doesn’t quite reach the creepiness or effectiveness of Claire Denis’s “High Life” that was released earlier in the year.
It many extents, Pitt’s character of Roy is a misanthrope on Earth. He holds much distance towards humanity and prefers to be introverted away from people, that includes his wife. Most of the film has moments of characters in brief, episodic appearances such as Liv Tyler as Roy’s alienated wife. Ruth Negga is an astronaut who’s a native on Mars, in which she’s never left her station since she was a child, while Donald Sutherland appears in a few scenes as Roy’s fathers old colleague, once again recalling Clint Eastwood’s “Space Cowboy’s”.
What sets-up as a space adventure, that becomes metaphysical and cerebral, ends up becoming a story about fathers and sons as they both attempt to reconcile and make amends any past differences, in which they both truly discover what it truly means to exist and to be human.
Gray’s sci-fi film is an impressive mood piece, that is undeniably graceful that holds grand ambition. It is a impeccably crafted pictured, from Hoyte Van Hoytema’s (Her, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Let the Right One In) stellar cinematography, to Max Richter’s ethereal score that echoes Cliff Martinez, and with all of that its commanding that it doesn’t feel like Gray is emulating the visual grandeur or techniques of “2001”, the film proves that Gray is an honest filmmaker of humility and grace as it becomes a sensory essay, or rather meditation on the future of humanity.
The space exploration and journey becomes rather a metaphor about re-exploring ourselves, our past, and re-exploring our past relationships and examining ourselves within. Like all quality sci-fi films, “Ad Astra” at its core has a humanist message. Surrender yourself to it, the film allows you to invest and experience the rewarding journey.