Ad Astra

 

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A film that may reach for the stars but stops short of reaching the heights.

 
Ad Astra

 

There’s no denying that James Gray’s Ad Astra is a work of considerable ambition. Set in the near future, its central figure, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), is an astronaut and for most of the time we are in space accompanying McBride on a journey that will take him first to the moon and then on to Mars and beyond. But, whereas most sci-fi films of this kind are content just to be adventure tales, Gray, co-author with Ethan Gross, is inviting comparison with movies that use this genre to go deeper. In particular, one thinks of Alfonso Cuarón’s magnificent Gravity (2013), but the comparison only emphasises the fact that Ad Astra, watchable though it is, falls short of that elevated standard.

 

The intention here is to combine a space drama and an intimate work centred on the relationship between fathers and sons. These contrasted aspects are fused by making Roy McBride’s mission one to investigate why Earth is being threatened by cosmic rays from outer space, a situation related (or so the authorities believe) to what happened twenty year earlier when Ray’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), led an enterprise to make contact with any intelligence in space. Clifford McBride’s fate may be unknown but he is widely revered as a hero despite those who suspect that if still alive he is not a man to be trusted. If contact is possible, then his son is the one person to whom he might respond.

 

Action is not ignored in this film - in addition to the details of space travel, we have an explosive opening and an unnerving sequence when a mayday call from another craft is investigated. However, the fact that Roy acts as a narrator conveying his thoughts is, when taken in conjunction with the emphasis that Gray places on close-ups of Pitt’s face, a pointer to the film’s central concern that a man may be driven by a need to live up to his father (Ray admits that he wants to be Clifford). Indeed this emulation has encouraged Roy to treat his work as more important than his family.

 

Lasting a little over two hours, Ad Astra seems on the long side, but Pitt is on good form and the mix could have worked well if only the filmmakers had had something really compelling to say. Jones is too big a name for Clifford not to appear in due course rather like Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, but the way in which Ad Astra resolves the father/son issues quite lacks the emotional resonance that ought to be felt. Similarly, the other serious theme that emerges at the film’s close (not far off that expressed in The Wizard of Oz as it happens) is not strongly enough conveyed to provide a truly satisfying conclusion. But, if the film's would-be significance fails to provide real depth, Ad Astra offers a technically proficient space trip, albeit one in which women have a very small part indeed. To my mind Gray’s early work - films such as Little Odessa (1994) and The Yards (2000) - remain his best work, but Ad Astra will not dent his reputation.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Alyson Reed, Natasha Lyonne.

 

Dir James Gray, Pro Arnon Milchan, Yariv Milchan, Brad Pitt and others, Screenplay James Gray and Ethan Gross, Ph Hoyte Van Hoytema and Caleb Deschanel, Pro Des Kevin Thompson, Ed John Axeland and Lee Haugen, Music Max Richter and Lorne Balfe, Costumes Albert Wolsky, Hair consultant for Brad Pitt Reg Powell.

 

New Regency Pictures/Plan B Entertainment/MadRiver Pictures/KeepYour Head/Bona Film Group-20th Century Fox.
122 mins. USA/Brazil/China. 2019. Rel: 18 September 2019. Cert. 12A.