James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is a character study of the isolation we experience not only in life, but in space. Through Brad Pitt’s phenomenal performance as Roy McBride, the film ponders a lot of questions about life while paying homage to classics like “Apocalypse Now”. “Ad Astra” is Highly Recommended.
Three things crossed my mind as the house lights came up on the screening of James Gray’s “Ad Astra.” The first was that I am sorely lacking in having seen his library of films; second, it plays a lot like “Apocalypse Now”; third, there’s a reason why I still love hard sci-fi films, and “Ad Astra” fits that bill nearly perfectly.
What I found keenly interesting was the timing of “Ad Astra’s” release to the re-release of Francis Ford Coppla’s seminal “Apocalypse Now” in its Final Cut release. Both films follow a similar story pattern and have nearly the same beats. Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross (“Fringe”, “Klepto”) have changed some of the settings, but the story of a lost soul searching for a higher purpose while struggling with the moral reasoning behind the mission he must endure is where the two stories diverge.
The highlight for the film is Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride; the son of a famed pioneer astronaut H. Clifford McBride, played with unbridled gruffness by Tommy Lee Jones. The elder McBride was responsible for a since abandoned Lima Project, but is found to be responsible for the power surges affecting the solar system.
The grandeur of space is reflected in the opening frames of the film, with a relaxed McBride acutely aware of the effects of the surge on the space antenna he is working on in low earth orbit. His attitude is deadly serious and focused, but we know that there is something more driving his actions. Gray uses the breadth of the operatic nature of a sci-fi story to give us a surface-level detail found in classics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Solaris” along with the aforementioned epic “Apocalypse Now” – a study in the psychology of isolation on we humans.
Pitt’s performance throughout the film, the events he endures and the journey hurtling him towards a stark realization are expertly supported through subtle supporting roles from Ruth Negga (“Loving”) and Liv Tyler (“Armageddon”). Both characters are markers for McBride as the ebbs and flows of the “river” the character must endure throughout affect the trajectory of his journey. Tyler plays Eve, Roy’s wife. I got some of her “Armageddon” vibes – subtle yet direct as she remains a distant part of Roy’s past life. Negga plays Helen Lantos, a connection to both Roy’s future and his past – her confidence in Roy ensures that his mission will move forward towards his destiny.
There is a military aspect to this film as well, grounded in our current combined space-military complex. To that end, Donald Sutherland makes an appearance as Colonel Pruitt in a Colonel Kilgore – type role, the only difference is that you can’t smell anything on the moon. The sequences involving Pruitt give rise to the political dangers and future economics of the solar system. These early action scenes don’t necessarily amplify McBride’s mission, but they certainly affect his mental acuity which directly impacts his mission; McBride takes the situation in stride.
Gray balances the details of Roy’s life with an outstanding look for the film, compliments of Academy Award – winning cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography along with a production design that reminds us of civilization’s dwindling reach the further we get into our own solar system.
Jones’s performance as Clifford McBride is analogous to Marlon Brando’s performance as Kurtz. Gray and Gross give the younger McBride a similar charge as Willard was given, but McBride has all the details about his objective – his dad. The ingenuity in Gray-Gross’s build-up of the characters and story is in the psychological impact of his relationship with his dad. The story isn’t full of “daddy issues”; Pitt’s performance rises above that station because there is no misplaced guilt in the relationship or the mission, with ample confidence offered by the supporting performers and the tech that surrounds the entire movie. The supporting players come and go throughout the film, each highlighting their specific purpose to Roy’s journey. There is good evidence that the speed at which they come and go diminishes the overall feel of the film, but they are imperative to Roy’s story and I found all of them a welcome addition.
I mentioned classics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Apocalypse Now” as the foundation for “Ad Astra,” but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention more modern sci-fi films such as Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine,” Paul W. S. Anderson’s “Event Horizon,” and Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 “Solaris” remake. Each of those stories also focus on isolation in space. Both “Sunshine” and “Event Horizon” more accurately depict the vested interests of humanity and the horrors of isolation; “Solaris” is a love story in space (there is reason to suspect that the original Tarkovsky version is more effective a story than the Soderbergh version, but that’s a discussion for another time).
Each of the aforementioned films explore the de rigueur of space travel, its psychological effects on us and our need to push beyond the confines of our small, blue ball. “Ad Astra” contemplates a lot of our base fears and our desires to push ahead as a species. It takes, head-on, the pioneering efforts and the legacies of those efforts that we leave behind with a warning to find a way to work together for the benefit of all mankind.
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray and Ethan Gross
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland
PG-13, 124 minutes, A Twentieth Century Fox/Regency Enterprises/Plan B Entertainment Release