Made for over 87 million dollars, James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is undoubtedly 2019’s biggest-budget art house film. If you watch the trailer, you might be tricked into thinking that this is just another sexy-actor-in-space blockbuster, in company with films like “Gravity” (2013), “Interstellar” (2014), “The Martian” (2015), and last year’s “First Man”. But what separates this science fiction epic from the rest is its breathtakingly poetic mood and melancholy vision.
We are introduced to the seemingly unflappable Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut/engineer living in a familiar yet strikingly advanced world. After surviving an extraordinary work accident (one so sudden and massive that this scene alone warrants the purchase of an IMAX ticket) with fearless professionalism, McBride is assigned a clandestine, “Apocalypse Now”-esque mission to travel to the edge of the universe to confront his father, Cliff (a ferocious, brilliantly unstable Tommy Lee Jones).
Cliff is the mastermind behind a mission that was trying to figure out if there are other lifeforms in the starry heavens. He became so obsessed he went AWOL and abandoned his family. Cliff’s former colleagues believe that his quest evolved into something much more sinister; something that could threaten the stability of all mankind unless Roy reaches across billions of miles and puts a stop to it.
Basically nothing is explained to the viewer about this troubling, slightly off-kilter future via dialogue. The minimum of what we’re outright told is that humanity, to varying degrees of success, finally colonized the moon. What we’ve chosen to do with this ranges from vague to frightening; the chilling cinematography by Hoyt Van Hotema is a masterclass in show-don’t-tell storytelling.
Despite having narration from Roy, “Ad Astra” has little room (or interest) in exposition. Roy’s narration has more in common with the inner-monologues of Terrence Malick’s films; the characters speak to themselves, not to the viewer. While this will understandably make some viewers groan with impatience, if you are familiar with director James Gray’s patient brand of storytelling (evinced in movies like “Two Lovers” and “We Own the Night”), you will not be thrown by the pace, but immersed in its flow.
One of the most fascinating aspects of “Ad Astra” is the way other characters treat Roy. Roy is an outsider-type by nature, but when people speak to him, they speak through him with absent, uncaring stares, treating him as a receptacle for commands. Gradually, this pushes Roy into zones of loneliness he isn’t equipped for. This, along with the unsettling artistry of the movie’s construction, impresses on the viewer that Roy is defined by his father’s legacy. Everything that is happening to him is happening inside of the shadow Cliff has cast. One of the complex questions the viewer will ask about Roy is if he is lonely by choice, or because his environment has whittled him into believing he is nothing more than a tool. Brad Pitt brings this distant character to extraordinary, piercingly vulnerable life. This is one of Pitt’s greatest performances, fitting neatly beside his stunning, equally un-pin-downable role from this summer’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.
Not typically a big-budget filmmaker, Gray uses every penny of the budget to create one of 2019’s most indelible cinematic moods. There is a totally original sense of a man’s inner power completely unravelling in the face of a conflict that is both personal and otherworldly. You can expect to read articles analyzing the film’s theme of fatherhood, but the most prominent focus of the movie is on the sensation of loneliness; specifically, what it feels like to be lost. This is probably the most money that has ever been spent on a movie about the perils of solitude. Roy has battered himself into a numbing, obsolete life, dropping his wife (a ghostly Liv Tyler) without batting an eye, yet the mastery of Pitt’s performance is in how he expresses a layer of regret to Roy’s every decision. Throughout the movie, Roy has to prove himself in mental-evaluations that will certify him to continue his adventure, but the deeper he goes into the void of infinite space, the more scared he becomes. His composure is his strongest weapon—the thing that rescued him in the film’s opening catastrophe—but as the film proceeds, he regresses into someone who isn’t an unbreakable cog of his profession, but a boy anxiously searching for his father in the middle of infinite nothing.
You may think that if you’ve seen CG-space once, you’ve seen how it will always look: giant swaths of black, sprinkled with stars and the occasional glowing planet. While these details are abound in “Ad Astra”, their effect isn’t repetitive. Gray actually plays by the rules of the territory and emphasizes, eerily, how silent the galaxy is. Max Richter’s score is dreamy and sad, and combined with the careful editing by John Axelrad and Lee Haugen (both of whom worked with Gray on 2017’s “The Lost City of Z”), the viewer truly feels like they’re spending an inordinate amount of time by themselves, even if they’re in a theater surrounded by many. The most audacious stretch of the film involves Pitt sitting alone in a ship that may not even be taking him where he needs to go; how time and solitude are treated during this sequence is shatteringly beautiful. Nothing in this film is predictable, and there is no guarantee that the outcome will be comforting.
“Ad Astra”, on paper, doesn’t seem necessary, but when you actually watch it unfold, it becomes clear what a special cinematic moment it is. Not only is it preposterously well made, but it strives with all of its millions to evoke in viewers the kinds of emotions they feel reading poetry, listening to music, or staring up at the sky. Rarely does big-budget filmmaking dare to be so abstract, so different, and so painfully human. Anybody trying to see all of the best cinematic offerings of 2019 must take this trip.