New Frontiers

One of America’s most consistently underrated directors, James Gray returns with a flat-out masterpiece, Ad Astra. If his last film, The Lost City of Z, took him into the jungles of the Amazon, this is further uncharted terrain, as he fires Brad Pitt’s highly-capable astronaut Roy McBride into deepest space. Like Gravity and Interstellar before it, the film leans towards the cerebral side of sci-fi, as McBride’s mission to Mars is really a journey of the soul.

With the Pitt-narrated voiceover, there’s the feel of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in space here; simply substitute McBride for Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, as he hunts down the gone-crazy Colonel Kurtz. Here, McBride is told to head to the Red Planet – via a hairy trip to the Moon – to broadcast a message to his own father (Tommy Lee Jones), a long-lost scientist who seemingly has gone rogue in his own mission to seek out new life.

If Ad Astra deals competently with such themes as man’s overwhelming desire to conquer, colonise and commercialise, it’s also a wrenching look at the child-parent dynamic. McBride’s Daddy issues extend to the fact his “pioneer” father left him years earlier to head up the Lima Project, a bold exploration to Neptune and the farthest reaches of the solar system. “In the end, the son suffers the sins of the father,” he says, laying out Gray’s manifesto.

While the female roles (Liv Tyler as Roy’s estranged wife, Ruth Negga as his contact on Mars) are too functional to be considered well-written, the focus is really on Pitt’s McBride. In virtually every frame, Pitt commands the screen in what is undeniably the most mature performance of his career. Up alongside his recent stuntman in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, it’s been a banner year for the actor.

Also hugely influential on Ad Astra is cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who eclipses even his work on Chris Nolan’s Interstellar and Dunkirk, with some spellbinding images, while the visual effects team also deserve credit for a marvelously realistic evocation of zero gravity and the like. What results is a stunning film that evokes both the sheer wonder and utter terror that blasting into outer space would entail.

Ad Astra opens on 18 September. For more details, visit Twentieth Century Fox.

James Mottram

Stills from
Ad Astra.