Over the past two decades, James Gray has made a name for himself making films about flawed characters navigating complex and gritty realms of crime, romance, and even the Amazon Jungle. In Ad Astra, Gray's ambitious venture into sci-fi filmmaking, he takes the main character on a literal celestial voyage. Roy McBride, after surviving a mysterious and destructive power surge, is tasked with traveling across the Solar System in an effort to contact his father who disappeared on a mission 16 years earlier. The journey may be astronomical, but the heart of the story is as modest, contemplative, and raw as the rest of Gray's work. This stark simplicity at the center of the film will be the deciding factor for many, with viewer mileage being dependent on the ability to stomach blunt thematic content and narrative turns that stretch believability to the breaking point.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Ad Astra is immensely impressive. Gray has always gotten exceptional work from his actors (Joaquin Phoenix's performance in The Immigrant is his best, for my money) and this is no exception. Brad Pitt perfectly embodies the film's emotional center, and Tommy Lee Jones gives his best performance in years, though considering he's been fairly under the radar in recent years, that may be an obvious statement. Natasha Lyonne (normally fantastic when given the chance) gets a bafflingly brief and somewhat distracting appearance, but the larger supporting characters played by Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga are well-developed, and they bring a necessary depth to their roles.
The film's most obvious strength, though, is its gorgeous visuals. The shots of space are truly breathtaking, contrasting the vast darkness with bright stars and vibrant planets, and Gray approaches the extravagant cinematography with a practical sensibility I really appreciated. One of my biggest issues with First Man was how Chazelle shot the third-act moon landing/exploration with a grandiosity that felt self-aware and boastful; that sense of self-satisfaction is completely absent from Ad Astra. When the camera lingers on the awe-inspiring shots, it's more meditative and doesn't demand an immediate emotional reaction. The cinematography is a strongpoint even apart from the sweeping wide shots of space, and by utilizing tight close-ups for the more grounded sequences, Gray creates an all-around immersive experience that soaks the viewer in the film's atmosphere.
And what a hypnotic atmosphere it is. Calling to mind The Tree of Life, especially with Brad Pitt's existential voiceover passages paired with the astonishing visuals, Ad Astra is intoxicating in practice, though for some it may fall apart when it comes to the narrative. Even apart from the accuracy of the physics (which didn't bother me personally), there are some wild turns that often challenged my suspension of disbelief. Gray sets up conflicts that grant the film some heart-pounding set pieces, but often the set-ups are clumsy at best and completely ludicrous at worst.
Brad Pitt in Ad Astra, photo by Francois Duhamel, courtesy of 20th Century Fox
None of these issues are exclusive to Ad Astra, though. Even the thematic frankness, which could come off to some as obvious or lazy writing, has been present in most of Gray's work. I will admit the repetition of the film's thematic content, especially made so explicit through dialogue and voiceover, began to wear on me, but I find it somewhat admirable that Gray eschews subtext entirely. He lays out the film's thesis so openly, instead of burying it under layers of pretension, which is a bold move, especially in a film this visually monumental.
Ad Astra is a film that will resonate differently person to person; for those who have lost a father, it may be cathartic; for those expecting a sci-fi action epic, or conversely a quiet existential mood-piece, it may be a total let down. For me, Ad Astra is visually stunning, thought-provoking, and often thrilling; a sci-fi drama about the need for connection that is impossible to dismiss.
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