James Gray is a director who makes some fascinating films, he started making crime films, but has branched out in recent years. His last feature, the period adventure film, The Lost City of Z was one of the most underseen films of the last few years. Now he’s back with the science fiction epic Ad Astra.
Following an astronaut, Major Roy McBride, who is sent to try and contact his father, long thought dead, after power surges from deep space threaten life on earth. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride, is seen as one of the pioneering figures in space exploration, but left Roy when he was just a child to carry out the exploration mission, known as the Lima Project. This father and son relationship is at the core of both Roy’s character and the film. Roy’s conflicted feelings towards his father drive him, as he moves from a cool and almost emotionless figure at the beginning, and we see him begin to deal with his father’s actions and the new information that has come to light.
And Brad Pitt plays this superbly. These days he doesn’t tend to star in 3 or 4 films a year, so I am always drawn to the projects he does pick, and in Ad Astra he picked a perfect role for him. Pitt really brings out the conflict and the rising emotions within Roy slowly throughout the film and in such a way that you truly believe the change he undergoes during the film. There are a number of other extremely talented actors in the film, such as Tommy Lee Jones and Ruth Negga, but no one else really gets the time that Pitt does to shine.
And that may be the biggest problem with the film. Because almost everyone other character is relegated to smaller supporting roles some interesting story or character threads are left unexplored. Primarily amongst those is the breakdown of Roy’s relationship with his wife Eve, played by Liv Tyler. We understand Roy’s character and how that lead to the marriage falling apart, but we don’t get to know her at all, and she becomes a big driving force for Roy later in the film. Similarly the character of Colonel Pruitt, played by Donald Sutherland, is an interesting one who we don’t get to learn much about, which is a real shame.
However this doesn’t detract from the quality of the film too much because it is impossible to ignore the level of technical achievement on display. The depiction of space travel that Gray brings to the screen is phenomenally realised. His all round direction is fantastic as well, shifting tones seamlessly when required. But it is Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography that really steals the show. Come awards season Hoytema is sure to be in the picture, as Ad Astra is one of the most beautifully shot films of the year, and that alone makes it worth seeing on the big screen.