James Gray is the most underrated director in Hollywood and, in a just world, "Ad Astra" should make him huge. From the cinematography to the score to the special effects, "Ad Astra" is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous film. Gray conjures moments and images that will stay with me for the rest of my life. But the film's one glaring flaw is a script and story that feels sadly undercooked in comparison with every other aspect of Gray's work.
- Photo courtesy of Warner
- Brad Pitt and Ruth Negga vs. solar flares.
Gray's last two films, "The Lost City of Z" and "The Immigrant" are both dyed-in-the-wool masterpieces focused on his obsession as a storyteller: humanity's inability to find comfort in the ordinary. Whether it's "Z's" British explorer on a doomed quest for a lost city in the Amazon or "The Immigrant's" Post War Polish sister searching for a better life in America, no one is happy with the world as they've found it.
"Ad Astra" follows this same path as Brad Pitt (breathtakingly vulnerable in every frame of the film) plays Roy McBride, an emotionless astronaut whose real claim to fame is being the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the most legendary explorer in history. Cliff left Earth decades earlier with the Lima Project, a mission to search the farthest reaches of the solar system for intelligent life.
Roy, who barely has an attachment to his father outside of the hero worship the rest of the world has for him, is tasked to try to find him before solar flares originating from the last known location of the Lima Project destroy all life on Earth.
So basically, what we have here is "Apocalypse Now" in space, complete with all the paranoia, madness and danger of that American classic. Visually, the movie is basically flawless, but the film is almost constantly filled with a godawful voice-over from Pitt that makes every single bit of subtext actual text. We always know exactly what Roy is thinking because he never once stops telling us for the entire film.
Gray gives "Ad Astra" the serious and existential tone of "Tree of Life" while simultaneously filling the movie with space pirates, ghost ships and zero gravity fight sequences, so the film instead feels like a goofy genre picture that would also love a few Oscars. And it almost deserves them.
I guarantee there's a director's cut of this movie that's an absolute masterpiece, as long as he removes the voiceover and moves a few pieces around. The film is almost heartbreaking with how close it comes to greatness, which makes its flaws so much more glaring in the light of day.
So many aspects of the film are perfect that it's absolutely worth seeing anyway, but man, this one hurts. Gray is a master filmmaker, but the bad choices he makes in "Ad Astra" are for rookies.