The ongoing ripples of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning, technologically unprecedented, success with 2013 Oscar dominee Gravity pummel through James Gray’s latest thought provoker. Breathtaking vistas expand across the picture’s wide screen, with pitch perfect photorealism – boosted by bona fide moon surface footage in some scenes – captured on sumptuously grainy 35mm film. Amid the deep space in which Ad Astra is set, Gray has lens-eyes only for his leading man. Intense close ups force viewers right into the depressive depths of Brad Pitt’s fully engaged eyes, seeking answers, hope, resolution even, but finding despair alone. It’s a pity Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross’ arduously moribund narration rarely shuts up long enough to let us appreciate the fact.
Gray’s budget might have tripled in the three years since he made The Lost City of Z – only increased by the tweaks that followed poor test screenings – but Ad Astra battles similar mental constructs and mines continued influence from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Coppola film it gave rise to. Even the ships here are named Marlow and Kurtz. Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a near future astronaut with chronic daddy issues. While the world around him, briefly but adroitly sketched, claws outwards at a Universe increasingly within reach (commercial space travel is a reality here, albeit in crass product placement format), McBride internalises. There’s pain in his soul, laid bare by the absence of a rage he suppresses, and a furiously flattened calm that can’t help but remind of Ryan Gosling’s turn as Neil Armstrong in last year’s First Man. McBride, it is said, has a pulse that has never risen above eighty.
For evidence of this, look no further than the film’s dizzying, Gravity recalling, cold open. Astride a passenger satellite in terrestrial orbit, McBride responds with steely, mechanical cool as metalwork erupts in clouds of flame above him. The screams in his comms don’t phase him as he responds, first by wiping the power and then by jumping ship and parachuting to the planet below. Plausibility isn’t the film’s strong suit so just go with it. Equally immaterial to McBride are the threats of fleeting moon pirates, bonkers man-eating monkeys and mauling space debris as each line up to take him on. Like an intergalactic Eeore, McBride instead hits each and every obstacle with a mordant disregard for the danger before him, fuelled by a deep routed, well-guarded depression: ‘I am focused,’ he tells us, ‘on the essential to the expense of all else.’
Except, one thing that can break his cool – and unearth the aforementioned rage suppressed within him – is the haunting presence of his father, rumoured to survive on the very edge of the Solar System. Truth be told, Gray labours McBride’s literal and metaphorical transgression from the Sun/son to the father. And yet, it is only as he nears the edge that the film finally sparks. Too long, Pitt’s exceptional visual performance is suppressed by Gray’s infectiously depressive voiceover. Stripped away is the veil betwixt the text and sub level, revealing something rather flat and morose. As Pitt’s eyes wrinkle and stubble grows, McBride’s decline into psychological destitution, nuance finally wins out and a sense for the lost film this could have been glimmers.
By all means, seek out Ad Astra on the biggest screens going – and bask in its authenticated beauty – but don’t expect satisfaction. From the string of strong female cameos to a lacklustre conclusion, a cosmos of wasted opportunity consumes the evident successes like a black hole of disappointment. It’s an odd film and far from crowd pleasing. Brad Pitt is excellent, approaching a career best turn, but po-faced distraction shadows his expediency. Where’s the subtlety? The intense capitulation of silence? The rest of the man-eating space primates? At least Lorne Balfe’s unsettling additional music sticks in the mind.