Brad Pitt has some serious daddy issues! Kidding aside, Ad Astra is the latest film from one of France’s favourite American auteurs from the past couple decades, James Gray. This is by far Gray’s biggest-budget film to date, in fact, its final $87.5 million budget isn’t that far off from the entirety of his previous six films combined. It’s also undeniably his most ambitious film in scope, but also with in terms of its commercial prospects. But although it’s been moderately successful, it “underperformed” at the box-office.
The film itself is basically Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness transferred into space. and it wears its influences very openly: almost immediately after the astonishing opening scene, which is pretty heart attack and vertigo inducing. Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, the son of famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who disappeared years previously during the “Lima Project.” There are power surges that seemingly could harm all human life, and it’s believed that Clifford could be responsible. Roy is briefed with this information in a top secret meeting, and is sent on a perilous journey into the rings of Neptune, from where the last transmission was broadcast.
When the film came out last year, there was a huge division between audience and critics over the film: critics were far kinder. Gray is very much a critic’s filmmaker. He is completely obsessed with ’70s-style filmmaking (as is Brad Pitt, for that matter), and some audience members may have been put off by this cerebral sci-fi movie. I loved it from the get-go, and consider it probably Gray’s best and most satisfying film (although the best moment of any of his films is the astonishing last shot of Lost City of Z, which might be my single favourite shot of any film of the last few years.)
Brad Pitt does his very best Captain Willard, and narrates much of the film in the vein of Apocalypse Now. Pitt has had the most extraordinary year with this and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. These two performances put him in the pantheon of greatest screen presences, as if he wasn’t there already. Both seem effortless, but are the work of a real actor. Tommy Lee Jones is having a ball in the Kurtz role when he eventually shows up. There is some great satirical stuff on the Moon, which has been completely corporatised in the near future—and if Elon Musk has his way, it will be. The cinematography from Christopher Nolan regular Hoyte van Hoytema is truly breathtaking, as is the sound design. It is a film that knows how to use silence, which is a rarity.
Flawless the film is not, but for a head-trip space odyssey, it delivers almost perfectly. My biggest gripe is with the ending, which ends on too positive of a note for my liking and smells of studio interference, but at the same time it makes all of humanity itself seem as lonely as Pitt’s character. It’s known that there were multi-million dollar reshoots, and there were constant rumours of the film being eventually taken away from Gray. The film also ended up getting pushed back throughout the year, with it initially set to come out in January, then May and finally arriving in September.
If you missed Ad Astra the first time around, give it a shot, and hopefully you will appreciate the best space odyssey since probably the ’70s. It should’ve gotten more awards-season buzz, but Pitt will finally be getting his first acting Oscar for playing Cliff Booth, so it’s all ok. The disc includes a commentary track from James Gray alongside various featurettes, and a little over three minutes of deleted scenes (with optional commentary). The theatrical and IMAX trailers are also on the disc.