Famously beloved by the French critics, and buried by Weinstein, the cinema of James Gray has a low-key grandeur. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the “major US auteur” game, he doesn’t showboat so much as he luxuriates in the craft of cinema that’s served us since Mèliés. Ad Astra, his shot at Hollywood, provides a vision that differs from the infantilised narratives that are suffocating our multiplexes.
Ad Astra is a shaggy dog story through space, as Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride travels to the outer reaches of the galaxy in search of his father (a cardigan-toting Tommy Lee Jones) who may or may not be causing power surges that threaten to finish off humanity. Gray downplays the Kurtzian overtones, his direction stuck between instincts: go sensory or go Genre.
Early on when he makes it to the moon, a treat: it looks like London Bridge station and there’s a soulless chrome sign saying ‘welcome to the moon’. It’s reminiscent of a Futurama episode. Via Donald Sutherland and a vicious Baboon, soon we’re on Mars for the standout sequence. Roy encounters Ruth Negga and the film gestures towards conspiracy thriller, turning from outer to inner space as reality begins to melt.
Brad Pitt, recently iconic as Cliff Booth, here flattens stoicism into boredom. Gray appears kept in check by studio notes, ensuring the requisite clunky dialogue and a ghastly narration with Rick Deckard-levels of sub-poetic blunt exposition. These moments are so corny that it’s hard to take the po-faced delivery seriously.
For all its “prestige sci-fi” visual splendour and high melodrama, this Man Conquers Adversity tale mostly delivers repetitions on a theme. From the delivery of the visuals, to the operatic strings, to the ultimate motivations driving the characters, it’s one of the year’s richest blockbusters, but there’s little here that can be called Gray’s own.
CAST: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
DIRECTOR: James Gray
WRITERS: James Gray, Ethan Gross
SYNOPSIS: Astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.