A popular Latin expression reads “per aspera ad astra”, signifying the journey of self-realization of man, going from the lowest point to the highest high: the stars.
Stars are not just a symbol in James Gray’s magnum opus Ad Astra, unveiled in Competition at 2019’s Venice Film Festival. They are characters themselves. They seem to speak to the men and women who populate the movie, as if they’re sirens who sing their seducing chant to Ulysses. They are particularly appealing to Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and his son, Roy (Brad Pitt). Clifford is a legendary astronaut (so much so that he’s at the center of a “wall of fame”, right next to Buzz Aldrin), and he’s particularly invested in finding proof of intelligent life in the universe. Unfortunately, he’s been missing for over a decade and believed dead. After a series of power surges strikes Earth, causing havoc on the planet, Roy, who has become an astronaut after the disappearance of his father, dedicating himself to the discovery of space, is sent into a mission to finding Clifford, who seems to be directly connected to the chaos taking place on Earth.
James Gray has been known for his masterful intimate portrayals of humanity on the search for a sense in life, for a purpose and a meaning. Ad Astra is no exception, doubling down on his wager, this time trying to combine visual spectacle and human reflection. For the lead role, he has chosen one of contemporary Hollywood’s most iconic leading men, Brad Pitt, to play Roy, a man whose admirable stoicism has saved him from the insanity of his own life and his life on a Planet Earth in progressing disarray.
You cannot help but admire the sheer ambition of Ad Astra. Visually driven by the extraordinary cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, who can easily range from high-speed rover chases on the Lunar surface to breathtaking views of space and Earth, the film becomes the viewer’s journey into outer space, positioned in the passenger’s seat, in awe of its surroundings, helped by the spectacular work of the sound department. It’s a film about the journey into the heart of darkness of space, the black hole where humanity disappears, haunted by its own ghosts and fears; a film where space becomes a living entity, something we have to deal with, for the survival of the species.
The combination of visual spectacle and intimate storytelling, while ambitious, ultimately ends with mixed results. Contemplative to a fault, the script’s over-reliance on Brad Pitt’s long, heavy-handed Malickian voiceover monologues causes a sort of paradoxical lifelessness in a film that wants to tell the search for the meaning of life. Rather than having a clear direction to a goal, this unevenly paced Ad Astra meanders and stumbles, lost in its vapid existential star gazing. Its occasional awe-inspiring scenes only prove that the film had a much bigger potential than the finished product seems to suggest. And while Brad Pitt is an actor undoubtedly devoted to this role, he seems more weighted down by it rather than carrying it with ease. His Roy is supposed to be a solitary, tortured soul whose stoicism at the adversities of life has made him emotionally detached from the world around him, but the inner conflict in his heart rarely transpires on the screen. Tommy Lee Jones is the real scene stealer in Ad Astra: despite the short screen time (the film is almost entirely centered on Roy’s space experience), Jones is able to convey desolation, anger, sick obsession with just one look. He’s the heart and soul of the film’s slightly overlong and anticlimactic final sequence, when the story finds closure.
Ad Astra has been accompanied by massive anticipation for several months now, despite or maybe due to its long and troubled production. I don’t know whether the difficult shoot and post-production had any impact on the final product. I just feel like James Gray’s signature screenwriting and directing style was swallowed up by the size of the project he was given, with his storytelling only appearing in scattered moments, glimpses of what the film could have been.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney will distribute Ad Astra in theaters on September 20th.