The cinema of director James Gray is marked by a strong sense of time and place. His films, dramas heavily influenced by Classical Hollywood and Italian cinema have made him an art-house curio over the last decade.
In 2016, Gray was entrusted with his biggest budget yet for the jungle adventure, The Lost City of Z, his first film not set in New York. Despite the underwhelming commercial success of that film, Gray’s newest, Ad Astra, a Brad Pitt-led sci-fi blockbuster, has the Two Lovers director working with an even bigger budget, and a team of visual effects artists to faithfully recreate the final frontier.
Ad Astra is set in the near future, and follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an experienced and unflappable astronaut, searching for his long-lost and highly esteemed father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), in the far reaches of the solar system after he’s revealed to have a part in massive power surges threatening all human life.
Pitt’s performance as McBride is exceptional. He portrays McBride with restraint and pathos rare in a Hollywood feature. His voiceover in the film, our primary way of understanding the character, is akin to the contemporary works of director Terrence Malick (Pitt also starred in Malick’s film The Tree of Life). It’s an unpretentious sort of speech – open-hearted feelings spoken with the solemnity of prayer.
Driven by the passion for space and the search for extraterrestrial life his father passed down to him, McBride finds no joy in the company of others. Prior to the events of the film, his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) has left him, citing his emotional absence in their relationship. His withdrawn and closed off masculinity has severed his ability to cherish connection, a strong thematic thread of the film.
McBride’s disappointment is understandable. In the future, Earth’s neighbouring planets have been colonized. The moon is a war zone torn by factions fighting over resources. The dream of space colonization is partially rooted in our hopes that this time we’ll get it right, but as we watch McBride move through a heavily commercialized moon base, complete with a large Subway restaurant, it’s clear humanity’s failings have spread to the stars. In the same vein, spaceflight in Ad Astra is commonplace. The experience, divorced from the pioneering spirit of the ‘60s, is analogous to grabbing a commercial flight.
The action in the film however, is anything but commonplace. Ad Astra is remarkably tense. The set pieces are beautiful and exciting, without ever losing the drama’s sense of desolation. In place of Gray’s usual attention to period and subcultural detail, the science-fiction world of Ad Astra is pared down to minimalist blocks of bold colour. Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s compositions are highly attuned to McBride’s psychological interior, while at the same time crafting an entirely plausible science fiction world.
In short, Ad Astra is a marvel – a big budget pulp fiction myth filtered through an expressionist lens uncommon in both Hollywood, and in James Gray’s own films.