Review: 'Ad Astra' is a Brad Pitt Masterclass and a James Gray Masterpiece
When I was a child, a solar system dangled from my bedroom ceiling. Glow-in-the-dark, sticky stars accompanied and surrounded them; when the lights went out, you could see them twinkle a bit. They'd work as a proxy nightlight while fueling a mild fascination. Looking up, I could imagine the escape an outer world might offer. I could wonder what might be out beyond my ceiling, a world I'd never know.
In James Gray's remarkable, ruminative Ad Astra, similar questions are studied and, more or less, answered along a visually stimulating interstellar voyage, but not one that relies on its visuals. Gray delivers both a technical marvel and a narrative spectacle, working with a script -- which he co-wrote with Ethan Gross -- with a soulful, beating heart. This is as special a film as I've seen in a long time.
"Ad Astra," in Latin, translates directly to "to the stars," which is exactly where we travel off the top. We descend on the life -- a complicated one -- of Maj. Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt, who is having the best year of his career), who currently spends his days working on a tower that stretches from the ground to space. He almost immediately plummets from said tower after a mysterious and fatal power jolt -- the "surge," as it has come to be known globally, killed thousands of people -- in a dazzling scene, one that feels like its the kind to end up on a memorial highlight reel when a director's career comes to an end.
And so Roy returns, having been thwarted by disaster, and perhaps his own longing for solitude.
It's upon that return that we learn a bit more about Gray's character, reaching beyond the collected aura to understand his purpose. His father, H. Clifford McBride, is viewed as a hero for his efforts in space but disappeared some time ago, long presumed to be dead. When Roy is called into a meeting with space exploration suits, he learns that the surge that sent him tumbling back to Earth came from an antimatter device orbiting near Neptune.
The Lima Project, a now-famous mission in this modern, space voyage-accepting world, saw its last signal or message come from the same location, and was where Roy's father was stationed when he went missing. The suits infer that this is no coincidence, and have reason to believe that H. Clifford McBride never died, but revolted. Roy must travel to Mars and attempt to communicate (read: reason and plead) with his father, beckoning him back to the planet he describes in a video recording that has "nothing for [him]."
If this sounds like a rather intricate premise with quite a bit of nuance to the narrative, that's because it's exactly that. The film, while distinctly Gray's, feels considerably Malickian. This is like if The Tree of Life rocketed beyond the clouds and bumped into Interstellar on the flight; it's a much more refined and shrewd space epic, a la Solaris, rather than Gravity or The Martian. There's no finite conclusion to Roy's journey, and Gray would rather you not reach a resolution so surely. It's more of a poignant experience than a structured, fragmented sci-fi film.
But it can also accept its own absurdities, something that requires meticulous technique. Worry not, though, as Gray has assuredly had precision in his filmmaking DNA for years, as evidenced by some previous brilliance in The Lost City of Z and We Own the Night. The film, as per its opening titles, takes place in the near future, a "world without conflict." It's also a world in which space travel is possible via a Virgin Atlantic aircraft; where a tourist-center exists on the moon, clad with a Subway and an Applebees; and Mars is home to more humans than rovers.
They aren't presented as realistic, much like the rest of the film's futuristic keel. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) delivers a product here that is the best of his career and some of the best of the year. In the void of space, it's difficult to feel close to much. Hoytema's camera, along with Max Richter's chilling, intimate score, helps us to fill that void with dramatic and exquisite close-up shots, more so designed to depict Roy's conflict than any other emotion.
More than anything, though, this is a film about a man grappling with the greater conflicts he has inside. The inevitable criticism will take issue with the masculinity war between Roy and himself, and Roy and his father; he's a man whose stoic nature is often communicated in a closed-off sense, even albeit focused and stern, and estranged himself from his wife (an underwritten, often absent Liv Tyler). Pitt's performance is so calculated, it feels like the actor is aware of the part and script he has. Roy's unsure of what he has, as he doesn't often stick around long enough to learn. Unless he's amongst the stars, which Pitt is, in terms of the film and in the realms of acting today.
2019 has been a year where the popularity of clips and photos of Pitt on various press tours has made this year feel like a "comeback" for our greatest living movie star. He has, however, been here all along, perhaps just working modestly, preparing for one of the best performances of his storied career.
The film's tagline reads, "the answers we seek are just outside our reach." It's a nuanced, ambiguous phrase that I think we grapple with far more often than we care to expose. Where do we turn in the face of certain mystery? These are psychological theories far beyond my pay-grade. But Gray and crew do something here that scratches the surface of the previously unscratched.
The conundrum at the center of his tale is exactly what spurs it into the immediate canon of classic and intimate film. It's near-perfect cinema, the kind that isn't made anymore, yet can only be made today.