From the thin blue line that divides the brothers of We Own the Night to the disrupted family units of Little Odessa and The Lost City of Z, it’s the external forces that pull us apart rather than the ties that bind us that’s of most interest to American filmmaker James Gray. Gray once again returns to such preoccupations with his most ambitious – and costly at $80m+ – work to date, the space drama Ad Astra.
How many times has the pressure of a studio budget stifled and suffocated the creative vision of an independently-spirited director? Too many to count, one could argue, and yet there are always exceptions to the rule. Ad Astra is, happily, the latest oddity to wriggle through the minefield of studio production. A well-worn story on paper – in the near future, a decorated astronaut must journey through space in order to avert a catastrophic threat to mankind – is embued with all the knotty human complexities and exquisite visual flourishes we now expect from the oft-overlooked Gray.
The space cowboy in question is Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, who also serves as a producer), a textbook company man revered for his coolness under pressure. This is amply illustrated in the spectacular opening sequence, which sees Major freefalling from an orbiting structure disabled by a mysterious electromagnetic pulse emanating from the far reaches of our solar system. Havoc is also wreaked on Earth and the powers that be waste little time in dispatching Major to eliminate the source – believed to be the long-lost space pioneer Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy’s father, moored on the outskirts of our solar system somewhere within the abandoned Lima Project (a mission established to discover other sentient life).
Audiences proved less-than-enamoured with last year’s First Man, an intentionally dour and straight-faced portrayal of Neil Armstrong’s single-minded, destructive dedication to the Apollo programme. Ad Astra may well suffer the same commercial fate but Gray’s latest far surpasses Damien Chazelle’s ‘bad dad’ biopic, largely thanks to a top-drawer Pitt performance and the film’s own unique sense of belief and conviction. Almost in a daze, Major crosses the stars (taking in such scenic vistas as a war-ridden lunar surface and rusted-brown, rather than red, Red Planet) chasing the spectre of a distant authoritarian he prays will remain dead.
It’s easy to see why many have likened watching Ad Astra to a quasi-religious experience. Major’s hushed musings on the nature of his mission and the Kurtz-like figure of his obsessive father are beautifully complemented by an original score from Max Richter and some of the year’s most arresting visuals courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. While contemporaries of Gray – Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan, to name but two – have fumbled in the dark for some form of ‘greater meaning’ to tag onto their tentpole IMAX blockbusters, Ad Astra provides the genuine thematic depth and real-world grounding so often missing from films of its ilk.
Support comes readily in the form of Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler, but this is very much a study of pressurised isolation that hinges on the strength of its lead. Pitt is, fortunately, more than up for the task, plumbing the depths of Major’s past with genuinely moving results, whilst at the same time offering the type of star power that will (hopefully) open Ad Astra up to a wider audience. It’s also worth noting that this will be one of the first Fox film released by Disney following the latter’s acquisition of the former earlier this year. This could well be the first and last time Gray is handed the keys to the movie-making sandpit – do make the most of it.