James Gray’s space drama is entirely shrouded in mystery, although it’s no surprise considering his previous work such as The Lost City of Z and the well-liked underrated The Immigrant, his 2019 Ad Astra is no different and but just as accomplished.
As astronaut Roy McBride, Brad Pitt in another astounding leading role plays a reveled hero that lives under the shadow of his accomplished father (Tommy Lee Jones is astronaut dad Clifford), who was assumed dead and lost in space after ‘The Lima Project’ mission was never heard from again 30 years back. After a series of energy surges that threatens to wipe out humanity and the entire solar system, SPACECOM assigns McBride a mission in which he must send a message to the Lima Project as it is believed that the surges may be coming from the ship thus revealing the theory his father may still be alive.
Gray’s direction and writing (alongside co-writer Ethan Gross) is fantastic, the film is a mixture of contemplative narration, explorative impressions of a world that has successfully developed civilization on other planets and high-octane thrilling action. An amazing early sequence is how a class divide has formed on the Moon, in which Pitt’s McBride and Donald Sutherland’s Colonel Pruitt are chased by international pirates from one base to another in a potential hostage crisis, it’s a simple subplot but effective in showing what human development and capitalist greed towards the disenfranchised on other planets could look like. What’s truly fascinating is the inner monologues the audience experiences through the protagonist McBride, as it goes deeper into his emotional and mental state as the journey to completing his mission begins to have its major twists and turns. His moments of melancholy are seen in the flashbacks of his estranged on-screen wife played by Liv Tyler – perhaps a subtle nod to her previous role in Armageddon. Pitt truly holds and grounds the film with subtlety on his capable shoulders, with or without company in spaceships.
That doesn’t go without mentioning its technical achievements with the set design by Kevin Thompson, the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, astonishing visual effects, the sound design (lack thereof, it’s space after all) the editing by John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, and Max Ritcher’s atmospheric music, the film simply works in its crisp but slow burning 2 hour running time.
Gray’s film won’t be for everyone and its concept isn’t the most original either. For a large Hollywood production, the film’s tone feels almost art-house and it won’t appeal to the tastes of the many, so to those expecting alien shootouts, proceed with caution and consideration towards enlightenment. Take the film upon face value though, accept the flaws it has, and keep an open mind that the film discusses humanity, the lack and loss of parenthood, and existentialism – and a very poignant one at that.