Over the past twenty-plus years, James Gray has established himself has a world class filmmaker with such titles as Little Odessa, Two Lovers, The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z in which he has mastered what I like to call the calm, dreamy epic. His latest, Ad Astra, blends the slow, quiet pacing of 2001: A Space Odyssey with certain themes and plot points from Apocalypse Now and Contact, and a little Terrence Malick abstractness, yet remains a unique science fiction experience of its own.
Starring Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, the film, which was co-written by Ethan Gross, follows McBride on a journey through space to locate the source of a series of power surges which have threatened our planet in the not too distant future. It has been suspected that Roy’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been presumed dead, is actually alive and has gone rogue, sending these surges to destroy the Earth so he can continue to search for signs of intelligent life in the universe.
The film uses a clever voiceover device in which Roy takes daily psychological oral exams to prove his worthiness for the mission. He can remain calm under the most dire of circumstances, such as in the thrilling, vertiginous opening sequence, keeping his heart rate low. He’s the perfect person to find his father, since he’s so disaffected. Damien Chazelle’s First Man explored similar themes but left me cold, whereas Ad Astra, as lumbering and internal as it is, moved me.
We learn in flashbacks that Roy has a strained relationship with his wife, played by Liv Tyler. He can’t connect or engage. His trip to the far reaches of Neptune includes stopovers on the Moon, which has been commercialized, and Mars, as well as long stretches in which we experience Roy’s isolation or watch him go through a series of tests to see if he can handle the ultimate showdown ahead. Were it not the for eerily evocative score by Max Richter, the clear beauty of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s (Dunkirk, Let The Right One In) cinematography, or Brad Pitt’s soulful stillness, I would have found the second act to be a huge bore. Sure it has its share of set pieces such as an exciting lunar chase sequence, a scary baboon attack, and a brief yet amusing cameo by Natasha Lyonne as a sort of Mars Walmart Greeter/harried bureaucrat, but it’s mostly contemplative. The real story gets told on Pitt’s face, a wellspring of emotions as he, like Willard, goes up a river of sorts to confront his own Colonel Kurtz. Basically, plotwise, you could jettison the entire second act and still have a coherent story, but then you’d miss out on a seductive, woozy film experience.
As the film moves along, it peels back the noise of its build-up to bring us a long-awaited confrontation with a dad he hasn’t seen in decades. I won’t spoil what happens, but the film brings up issues of “Deadbeat Dads”, the need to connect with others, or the narcissism which prevents that from ever happening. It takes a while, like space travel, but it arrives at something profound and human in the end.
Those expecting another Gravity will want a refund. It’s definitely right on the edge of dullness, but the craftsmanship and level of performance keeps it aloft. James Gray makes films about humans who want to push themselves to their limits to discover who they really are, and as such, he’s a rarity. I’ll follow his career to the Moon and back…or even further. In this era of popcorn, slam bang overkill, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker and star take their time and give us something different.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Ad Astra gets a 0 out of 50. Realistically, there’s little time for sexuality in a story about daddy issues. Wait a minute!! Maybe this is the gayest film ever made!
By Glenn Gaylord
Ad Astra is currently playing all over the universe.