Ad Astra (2019)

James Gray directs Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland in this space epic where a career astronaut follows his long lost father’s trajectory into the far reaches of the solar system in the hope of making contact.

There are two ways to approach Ad Astra. A space adventure with set pieces that include a moon buggy demolition derby and a horrific side rescue mission on an seemingly deserted laboratory. These sequences thrill and grip, come with such a measured regularity that Ad Astra can be broached as a mature thrillride in the same vein as The Martian. Yet even these set pieces have a sonic and visual sophistication that suggest Gray is aiming for something more ambitious. For Ad Astra can also be embraced as a character study of a lonely, career focussed man journeying into oblivion and slowly revealing his psychological cracks and emotional needs. An exploration into the soul of modern man, distant from his father yet on the exact same track and overly aware of the inadequacy of others he must rely on. A portrait of modern masculinity in and out of a vacuum. I’m going to be honest, I preferred the beautiful big screen rollercoaster elements but here is a generous work of cinema that scores each way. Pitt is excellent (again) as the closed-off questor. Gray finally cashes in on his long promised reputation. His previous films have all been museum grade forgeries. Explicit Coppola clones without the heart, noodling around ground broken by a superior creative decades before. There still are shades of that here… Hell… Ad Astra essentially has the plot of the film owing as much to that vibe (retracing the steps where the last pioneer generation overreached) as it does Apocalypse Now / Heart of Darkness in space. Yet for such a stark, sparse experience the key difference is this 8th film by Gray is never boring or cold even if it operates within the same core programming as his earlier heroic failures. Something in the code has finally debugged, after 30 years of Hollywood indulgence he’s finally made a bonafide good one.


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