It’s long been a tradition for celebrated filmmakers, especially those who typically avoid genre work, to make a science fiction film at some point in their career. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris set the tone for a practice that’s produced sci-fi work from unlikely directors.
James Gray’s Ad Astra certainly falls under the auteur sci-fi umbrella. The newest from the director of period dramas The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z stars Brad Pitt as Roy, an astronaut who narrowly survives a catastrophic workplace accident on a giant space antenna caused by mysterious global power surges. He learns that the source of these deadly surges may be related to a deep-space mission his father disappeared on three decades ago.
Space movies have long employed the trope of the astronaut as a cold, emotionally distant man. Movie astronauts both fictional (2001) and historical (First Man) prioritize unfeeling calculation over their human emotions. Ad Astra uses this template to explore the ways our society damages men and boys by discouraging them from showing, or feeling, emotion. Roy takes pride in his ability to compartmentalize, something he’s learned from his absent (both emotionally and literally) dad.
That metaphor profoundly complements the growing cultural conversations about toxic masculinity. It also spirals into on-the-nose obviousness in the film’s final act. But by the end of the film, that’s not a huge ask of the audience. Gray’s film operates on an arc, moving from realism into abstraction, which reflects Roy’s arc as he moves from hardened stoicism toward engaging with his emotions. The film’s visuals follow this arc, too, from the crisp, straight lines of the opening space-antenna scene to the murky darkness of deep space.
Pitt is doing some of his best work here. As an actor, he often oscillates between subdued, naturalistic performances (The Tree of Life, Moneyball) and the type of obnoxious, scenery-chewing, capital-A “Acting” that makes Johnny Depp unwatchable (12 Monkeys, War Machine).
Much like in his excellent turn in this summer’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Pitt wisely allows himself to exist onscreen in Ad Astra. Roy is always projecting stoicism while trying to convince the world, and himself, that he isn’t hurt and afraid. There are many solid supporting performances, including those from Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland, but Pitt’s craft anchors this film.
The exquisite craft extends to Gray’s constantly-moving camera, floating slowly but restlessly (the film is gorgeously photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, who filmed Interstellar and Dunkirk). The music by Max Richter is equally relentless, a moodier version of the ambient “space music” of Vangelis or Tangerine Dream.
Ad Astra is self-serious and brooding. That might not play in an era when popular movie sci-fi is of the smirking, crowd-pleasing, Marvel variety. But the film earns its tone through impeccable technical work, a riveting central performance and a thoughtful approach to its themes.
Published in Volume 74, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 26, 2019)