Daddy issues abound on a galactic scale in James Gray’s meditative, visually stunning sci-fi. The vastness of space is compressed, made intimate and cast as one man’s journey through his own heart of darkness.
Of course, it does help that that man is Brad Pitt. He gives an impressively restrained, insular performance as Roy McBride, an ace astronaut whose drive to be the best comes from the heroic legacy of his father (Tommy Lee Jones) who disappeared during a mission to find artificial life near Neptune. When the Earth is imperilled by by electrical surges from space, Roy is sent across the Solar System to find the source, which may just be McBride Sr, presumed dead for thirty years.
Ad Astra is another space saga that, like last year’s First Man, was received with something like rapture by critics but drew a muted response from audiences. Many were baffled by the decision to haul the infinity of the universe down to the focus of emotionally-stunted men. As we’ve seen so often, part of this is down to a trailer showcasing the film’s few action set-pieces and fundamentally misrepresenting the film itself. These scenes are undeniably thrilling, particularly an early high-rise plunge from a space antenna and a silent space buggy shootout on the surface of the moon, but most of the conflict is firmly internal.
The rich father and son dynamic is thematic ground that the admirably ambitious Gray has covered before, in The Lost City of Z; a quixotic colonial trek through the Amazon, although Percy Fawcett has more in common with the elder McBride in that his tilting at windmills also profoundly affects the relationship with his son. The film is so immersed in this relationship that it relegates Liv Tyler as Roy’s (presumably long-suffering) wife to a point so far on the periphery he may as well have been written as a bachelor with zero effect on the story at all.
Gray’s stated ambition is that he wanted to present, ‘the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.’ Has he achieved this? For the most part, and to an untrained eye, he seems to have succeeded. The physics feels more or less accurate and Hoyte Van Hoytema‘s panoramic 35mm photography is the equal of his work in that other Space Daddy opus Interstellar. The near future as depicted by Gray has the same uncanny plausibility as that in Black Mirror, with an augmented but recognisable society and technology that feels like it’s dancing just beyond our current reach. There are a few moments that push credulity and undermine Gray’s aim but the dramatic effect is worth it, even if they occasionally feel like a grudging inclusion for a blockbuster audience.
As with with many films that feature a quest, the great joy is the journey not the destination and that is true of Ad Astra. To Gray’s credit so much anticipation is built up throughout that the film doesn’t quite stick the landing as it gets to the family reunion. The third act is rushed and somewhat underwhelming, waving billions of miles past in the blink of an eye. It’s therefore easy to come away slightly deflated, but that would be to overlook what an achievement it is on many other levels. It’s pulp cast in the mould of art and is one of the more gorgeous films you will see this year.
@Filmhouse Edinburgh until Thu 24 Oct 2019