James Gray’s films have such a classicist approach that one can easily categorize them as conventional, but don’t be fooled by what you’re seeing, as it is incredibly hard to pull off what Gray did in “Lost City of Z” and, especially, “Two Lovers” (his two best movies). The near mythical themes of those films have given him an auteur-ial stamp, a distinguishable trait for a director who seems to be obsessed with old-school Hollywood storytelling and the romanticism that comes with it.
In “Ad Astra,” Gray has Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travelling to the far reaches of space, from the moon to Neptune, to find his missing dad (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut who left on a deep-space voyage some 30 years ago and never returned. McBride’s mission, a top-secret one assigned by the militarized section of NASA, is not only to find Pops, but to also unearth the cause of a mysterious blast which has killed thousands on earth, nicknamed the “surge” — is his dad responsible for committing this tragedy?
Of course, Gray isn’t a director who has ever really cared for populist tastes – he’s a lone ranger in a sea of muck. When you take risks like he does, in movie after movie, you’re bound to sometimes fail. And so, despite an excellent lead performance from Pitt, “Ad Astra” is a movie a little too confused with itself. “Bewildered” is the proper word to explain my experience watching this sci-fi epic, which felt like an uneasy mix of “Solaris” and “Gravity.” There’s the deep-thinking narration from McBride throughout, with echoes to Captain Willard from “Apocalypse Now,” but those more artful passages are interfered with escapist action sequences involving pirates and primates that feel like they belong in an entirely different movie. In a way, “Ad Astra” is very much two movies, two different visions fighting against each other and eventually settling down for a distorted and compromised middle ground.
“Ad Astra” is a risky $80 million studio movie with ambition to spare and for that reason alone we should be grateful it even exists, let alone greenlit by a major studio, but the schizoid nature of the narrative is no doubt a result of the studio meddling that must have occurred.
This is Gray trying to make his own space odyssey but without the grab-me-by-the-neck hypnotism of the obvious classic forebearers. The narration by McBride feels too overused, an almost Malick-ian approach from Gray, with voiceover passages that feel more pretentious than authentic. It doesn’t help that the father-son story doesn’t really grab the viewer either, I quite simply didn’t care for the emotional stakes at hand in “Ad Astra.” The end result left me wanting more, much more, but the fascinating moments, even the ones that fail, are hard to dismiss as just fodder, if you’re a serious-minded cinephile looking to be challenged at the movies then this is something worth seeing and then grasping. [C+]