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Brad Pitt stars as astronaut Roy McBride in James Gray's Ad Astra.

Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox

  • Ad Astra
  • Directed by: James Gray
  • Written by: James Gray and Ethan Goss
  • Starring: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler and Tommy Lee Jones
  • Classification: PG; 122 minutes

rating

Why are our best filmmakers going to outer space? It was a question posed online the other day by film-festival programmer Miriam Bale, sparked by the new-found extraterrestrial enthusiasm of such previously earthbound auteurs as High Life’s Claire Denis, First Man’s Damien Chazelle and, as of this weekend, Ad Astra’s James Gray. Surely these respected, art-house-leaning filmmakers don’t need the CGI bells and migraines that come with making outer-space cinema, right? But the answer, as first articulated by film writer Karina Longworth, is obvious: “It’s a way of getting movies about human relationships made that studios otherwise wouldn’t touch.”

Even with its rocket launches and zero-gravity trappings, I am still shocked that a studio got close enough to even flick a finger at Ad Astra. A meditative, philosophical and deliberately quiet work in all senses of literal and figurative volume, Gray’s new film is the antithesis of modern-audience expectations. It is not only a rebuke to the concept of outer-space spectacle, but an upending of the easy cynicism that has defined so much of the shapeless, empty product rolled out by the major studios over the past few years. And it is fabulous.

Of all today’s best working filmmakers, Gray’s journey to space was inevitable, too. While the writer-director’s first five films, from Little Odessa through The Immigrant, all took place within the roughly same 15-square-kilometre patch of New York, it was increasingly clear that Gray possessed the skill, the fiery yearning, to tell as big a story as the galaxy. Geography was a comfort of Gray’s early work, but it was never a defining element – his intense, finely calculated dramas were layered and rich enough to adapt to whatever environs he happened to place them in.

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This truth was borne out when Gray thrust himself into the sweltering chaos of the Amazon with 2017′s The Lost City of Z, and it is even more clear in Ad Astra. The new film is easily Gray’s most ambitious, bare-your-soul work, and one of the finest films of the year, too.

McBride travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father and unravel a mystery that threatens the Earth's survival.

Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox

Taking place in a near future where the entire population of Earth seems to be united in a common cause – finding intelligent life beyond our stars – Ad Astra opens on one of the planet’s cooler customers: astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt). The well-respected scientist spends his days working for the militarized force known as SpaceCom and is renowned for his unflinching nature – even when he’s falling from the top of a satellite to the Earth below, as he does in the film’s first few minutes, Roy’s heart rate never rises above 80 beats a minute. This calm presence does not extend to his personal life, though, as Gray inserts quick flashes of a marriage gone awry, and Pitt’s voice-over frequently betrays his many self-doubts and frustrations.

Gray and his co-writer (and long-time friend) Ethan Goss are tremendously skilled, though, in their balance of character and narrative, emotional shading and world-building, as they quickly toss Roy into a save-the-Earth mission that reveals just as much about Ad Astra’s fictional landscape as it does the tiny ticking motions that keep Roy moving. A devastating electrical storm known as “the surge” has suddenly hit Earth, and it just might be because of the Zeus-like machinations of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), an astronaut who decades ago led a deep-space mission to Neptune and never returned – and who also happens to be Roy’s father. So begins a Heart of Darkness-esque story that pits destiny against duty, selfishness against sacrifice and toys with whether it is heavier to disappoint the world or disappoint your father.

There are many ways in which Gray’s vision could tip into pretentiousness or cliché. And very infrequently, it does, as when Roy’s narration slips in a line about the “sins of the father.” (Like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, there’s surely a cut of Ad Astra out there that is free of Pitt’s voice-over; 20th Century Fox would be wise to make it a Blu-ray extra.) But at every other moment, Ad Astra completely takes over your senses, overwhelming in only the way the most focused of filmmakers can. For large stretches of the film, Pitt’s hero is completely alone – but Gray doesn’t isolate his audience or treat the inherent torture of long-haul distance as a sadistic pleasure. His journey to the stars is one meant to be taken collectively by an audience, each viewer bringing their own baggage for one very heavy and distant voyage.

Ad Astra is Gray's most ambitious film and one of the best movies of the year.

Twentieth Century Fox

Mostly, Gray accomplishes this by simply trusting his audience, a method as sound as it is also unheard of in today’s cinematic marketplace. Every plot point and drop of narrative colour is onscreen, but never hammered home in exposition-heavy monologues or shoved down our throats as if we are too dazzled by special effects to simultaneously track a story’s details. (This marriage of VFX and narrative results in some wickedly funny set design, as in SpaceCom’s lunar outpost, which has room for both dystopic, grey modules and a neon-lit Applebee’s restaurant.)

Crucially, it all makes sense. Unlike Ad Astra’s most obvious relative, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Gray’s science is sharp, his world’s rules clear. The film will leave you clutching your heart, but it won’t leave you scratching your head.

Thank goodness, too, for the presence of Pitt. While Gray has found tremendous success with the live-wire intensity of frequent collaborator Joaquin Phoenix (The Yards, We Own the Night, The Immigrant), the director’s partnership with Pitt might be his greatest. The actor can play calm and collected for anyone, but Gray pushes him with a relentlessness that the actor may not have previously known. Roy is a character obsessed, or made to obsess by his SpaceCom minders, with being “stabilized.” (He’s frequently asked to submit to psychological evaluations, as if a robot that might inevitably blow a circuit.) But Pitt finds the tension, the live-wire danger, in being too stable for too long and offers a thousand tiny explosions over the course of just two hours.

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Despite the four stars that sit atop this review, Gray’s film is not unimpeachable. There is the narration that wears out its welcome and an embarrassing frustration when it comes to almost anything involving Roy’s ex (Liv Tyler, cast seemingly for her history as another left-behind astronaut’s wife in Michael Bay’s Armageddon). But I still left Ad Astra feeling the best kind of dizzy – my perspective shifted, my footing unfamiliar, the world something imperceptibly new. I came back down to Earth, but I’m not sure that I wanted to.

Ad Astra opens Sept. 20

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