Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn, John Ortiz, Freda Foh Shen, Ravi Kapoor
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Directed by: James Gray
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong languag
Running Time: 122
Date: 09/19/2019

Ad Astra (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Space of Hearts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ad Astra is the seventh feature, but the first genre film, by the New York filmmaker James Gray. Most of his previous films were set in big cities, but this one is set in the cold loneliness of space.

Yet whether here or there or in the bug-bitten Amazon jungle — as his his last film The Lost City of Z — Gray's films have the same traits. Many of these are what makes him one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers in America today.

A die-hard fan of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls-era cinema, he does more than simply make references to classic films of the 1960s and 1970s. He tries to get inside what made those films tick.

In his films, characters seem to naturally follow their emotional responses, rather than serving a plot.

He even sometimes comes up with astonishing cinematic flourishes, the kind of shots that get discussed in film school, from a rainy chase scene shot entirely through a car's windshield wipers in We Own the Night to the stunning closing shot in The Immigrant.

Yet unfortunately just as constant is a kind of distance, an emotional remove that makes it hard to get very excited about his movies. They're far easier to admire than to adore.

Now in Ad Astra, we have Brad Pitt, with his Cary Grant-like charisma, warmth and humor. It's difficult to find a Pitt role that doesn't feature some of his winning personal essence.

But does Pitt heat up Ad Astra a little? The answer, weirdly, is no. He gives an unquestionably superb performance as astronaut Roy McBride, but one that's just as removed as Gray's other characters.

It's the future, and Roy is summoned to a secret meeting. Weird cosmic pulses have been hitting the earth, knocking out power, laying waste to the land, and killing thousands.

Scientists think that the pulses are coming from Neptune, where his own father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) traveled on the first manned mission to the outer regions of the solar system, many years earlier.

Roy's top secret mission is to go to Mars and send a message to his father. But, of course, Roy realizes that he must actually continue on to Neptune and see what's what.

His travels — rendered with cutting edge visual effects and sound design — include several interludes, notably a few exciting "floating-in-space" set-pieces that compare with similar moments in Gravity and The Martian.

Another one, involving an investigation of a mayday signal, is perhaps the most shockingly terrifying sequence in any Gray film.

Yet another, involving the weirdly, self-destructively violent reactions of the crew when Roy stows away on a rocketship, may be the dumbest in any Gray film.

But overall Ad Astra is concerned with the concept of alienation, or isolation, and it dedicates many of its sequences to that, though it's arguably less effective than Claire Denis's High Life from earlier this year, on some of the same themes.

Pitt's Roy is a character that doesn't even like to be around other people when he's on earth, and the movie seems to feel the same about its other characters. Liv Tyler appears briefly as Roy's long-suffering wife, with little to do other than mope around in the movie's margins.

Ruth Negga is slightly more interesting as a woman who has lived her entire life on a Martian outpost, while Donald Sutherland smoothly glides through a few scenes as an old colleague of Clifford's, inadvertently (or deliberately?) recalling their space mission together in Clint Eastwood's 2000 Space Cowboys.

But ultimately, this is Roy and his father's story, both of them attempting to reconcile aloneness and togetherness, identity and family, and whether there actually is any intelligent life in the universe.

It's a big theme, and a long way from Gray's best film to date, Two Lovers. That film has no quests, no missions, and no crimes; it's just three characters trying to get their heads around their feelings.

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity proved that a great film about existence can be set in space, but perhaps Gray's greatest strengths require him to keep his feet on the ground.

Movies Unlimtied