If there is a man who should be proclaimed as a cinema auteur then it most definitely James Gray, a consummate filmmaker who never fails to deliver with each one of his projects. Here in Ad Astra he takes audiences to the edge of our solar system and the resulting film is an extraordinary cinematic achievement.
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of humans on Earth. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and its place in the cosmos.
Ad Astra, when translated from its Latin verse, means ‘to the stars’ and that’s exactly where director James Gray takes his audience with this incredible feat of filmmaking. Ever since his 1994 debut Little Odessa, Gray has proven himself to be an incredibly versatile narrative storyteller and it feels like his entire life has been leading him to tell this story.
Shaped in part by both Heart of Darkness and The Odyssey, two classics of the narrative form, Ad Astra is the story of man’s search for meaning in the greater cosmos and how his preordained mission takes on extra significance when his feelings and beliefs are woven into it. Here in his film Gray focuses in on an intimate portrait of his protagonist, astronaut Major Roy McBride, and his narrative, which matched with the talent of Brad Pitt, is amazing to see unfold.
Through Ad Astra, Gray presents an incredible vision of the near future and he takes audiences right to the very edge of the solar system. Filled with intricate detail, Gray showcases how no matter where we are destined to go within this universe, our humanity will never leave us and that this human force will continue to shape our destiny.
His vision of a populated solar system is one of Earth transported to it, with both complex geopolitical subcultures and mundane commercialism having placed their mark on the greater solar system. Gray makes the case that no matter what, we cannot escape our humanity and that whatever we want our future to look like, we have to remember that it is our humanity that shapes our reality, whether that be on earth or the greater solar system.
When it comes to shining stars in the twinkling world of Hollywood they don’t get much bigger than Brad Pitt, and here the revered movie icon bears his soul in an incredibly moving performance. As astronaut Roy McBride, Pitt is elevated to the 1% of the 1%. McBride is the best of the best in this future world, and has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of the further exploration of our solar system and the vastness that lays beyond it. He also lives in the shadow of his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a man who is both a legend and enigma, and whom Roy never really knew and who he can never escape. In such a situation it’s hard to keep a clear mind, and this is exactly where Pitt takes us with McBride as he undertakes a top-secret mission to locate his father and try and turn him from the path that he is on.
Confident, determined and steadfastly capable in his duties, Pitt’s McBride is an All-American boy who is steadfastly committed to his job, but as he leaves our world for the greater solar system, his mind and the voice inside it starts to play on him and this is where things get interesting. In the endless void of the cosmos, it is Roy’s humanity that comes to the surface and even with all of his control and training he cannot escape his internal emotions. Feelings of anger, fear, rejection, sorrow, pain and ultimately love all rise to the surface here and in the vast emptiness of the black abyss of space Pitt’s McBride has to deal with all of them. Pitt gives one of his most memorable performances here as McBride and it is a career-best for the actor.
In terms of the visual experience, Ad Astra delivers with some of the most exceptional imagery you’ll see all year on the big screen. Gray invokes the words of his film’s title and takes his audience to the vast emptiness of our solar system in a journey that is one of incredible scope mixed in with beautiful colours bathed in pure starlight. Joining forces with esteemed cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Gray crafts some of the most beautifully rendered images of the cosmos since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and your jaw will be open in amazement as to how our solar system is realized here.
Together in Ad Astra, these two master image-makers build out a beautifully rendered portrait of space and humanity’s place within it. This is achieved with incredible detail which is applied to the film’s light and dynamic range and it vibrates with bold colours of crisp aqua, burning orange and cool blue. This bold arrangement of colours helps to bring the audience further into the narrative that Gray brings to the big screen here and you will marvel in amazement at the visual glory that is on display here.
If there is a central theme to Ad Astra then it is most definitely how man’s will can extend to accomplish the impossible. As sentient creatures with a developed frontal lobe, our dreams and desires know no horizon and in Ad Astra we have come to tame the very solar system in which we live.
Ad Astra is the examination of humanity on the edge of the cosmos, where it is removed from Earth and placed out into the void of the black abyss of space. But even in this environment, we can never escape its hold over us. While we may search for new worlds and try to answer the question of whether we are alone in the universe or not, this quest for answers, and the quest to know ourselves stems from the very human forces that drive us and Gray’s film is a celebration of this force and the will and drive that it gives us.
Ad Astra is also an exploration of man’ search for connection with his absent father and Gray uses this in relation to the connection between one man’s physical father, as well as to the heavenly godlike influence of the universe that surrounds him. Throughout Roy’s journey, we come to meet a man who has no connection to his father, and who in his mission has the chance to remedy this, along with rescuing him back from the edge of the abyss. But in undertaking this journey, Roy also comes into contact with the extremes of our solar system, and its here that the presence of the divine begins to enter into his life.
This exploration of the interaction between fathers and sons has always been a major part of the work that forms Gray’s lists of credits and here he examines how fathers guide their sons and the direction that this ultimately gives to their lives. Gray does an excellent job of this and as an audience member its fascinating to watch how Pitt’s interactions with Jones shapes the narrative and outcome of this movie.
As a cinematic experience, Ad Astra is bold and beautiful and it takes its audience on a wild and unprecedented adventure. It’s an exploration of the capability and triumph of the human spirit and audiences will come away from it with the feeling that they’ve experienced something truly groundbreaking.
Image: 20th Century Fox