Ad Astra belongs to this melancholic tradition, which is about what you’d expect from a film from writer-director James Gray, the great introvert of modern American cinema.
Officially this is Gray’s first venture into science fiction (and the budget, while not enormous by Hollywood standards, is by far the largest he has ever had). But in spirit it shares much with his last film, the true-life jungle adventure The Lost City of Z.
Like any good hero, Roy keeps a cool head in the face of near certain death.
Both follow a stoic loner on a journey into the unknown, entailing a merging of outer and inner worlds — an archetypal (and very male) “hero’s journey” narrative, self-consciously embraced and critiqued at once.
The exposition Ad Astra requires to get the journey up-and-running is managed with a clumsiness typical of Gray, whose strengths are those of an artist rather than an entertainer.
Earth has been hit by a series of electrical storms, which are causing large-scale chaos across the planet. In some unexplained fashion these are said to originate from Neptune, where astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) supposedly died a hero’s death long ago.
In fact, it seems that Clifford may still be alive. So his son Roy (Brad Pitt) agrees to follow in his father’s footsteps in hope of learning what’s really going on — a premise that harks all the way back to The Odyssey, as the well-read Gray is undoubtedly well aware.
Our first glimpse of Roy in action comes in a memorably alarming sequence — dreamlike in its very matter-of-factness — where he plummets from the top of a “space antenna” a mile or so high. Like any good hero, Roy keeps a cool head in the face of near-certain death; the difference between this and a Mission Impossible set-piece is the greater sense of gravity, figurative as well as literal.
In this respect, the film begins as it means to continue. While there’s no lack of spectacular vistas, the most dramatic landscape of all is Pitt’s face, regularly shown in close-up: the camera locks onto the dauntless yet dutiful Roy, waiting for the moments when he will emotionally “break”.
This is an acting challenge which Pitt meets impressively, letting emotion surface seemingly against his will—in contrast to the open weeping which was a rather overdone feature of Interstellar.
Pitt, like Tom Cruise, has retained his boyishness for so long it’s hard to accept he’s now in his mid-fifties, a fact Gray uses to the film’s advantage. Taking orders from his superiors, Roy seems an eternally fresh-faced cadet; later scenes show him in a literally harsher light, as if the ageing process were sped up by his departure from earth.
In other ways too, the narrative toys with our perception of time: some plot developments occur bizarrely fast, while others seem impossibly stretched out.
It is possible that this disjointed quality is not entirely deliberate, and that the version of Ad Astra we have is not quite the one Gray set out to make.
There have been rumours of reshoots, and Pitt’s ponderous voiceover narration has the ring of something tacked on at the last minute.
As so often in films about a quest for truth, the ending is less than satisfying and as in Gray’s work generally, there’s little evidence of a sense of humour. But does any of this make Ad Astra a failure?
If so, it’s the kind that proves that failure can be more interesting than success — which might be part of what Gray has been trying to tell us all along.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.