“I do what I do, because of my Dad.”
Ad Astra tells the story of Roy McBride, an astronaut, who after an explosion kills his whole crew, is questioned by government officials. To Ray’s surprise, the questioning is about a mission 30 years prior, called the Lima Project, where the authorities believe that Ray’s father, Clifford, may still be alive. Ray must now embark on a dangerous journey through space to find his father, fix the problems that cause a great threat to earth, and struggle to find the answers to secrets that lay far below the surface. Ad Astra is an ambitious story with beautiful visuals. But director James Gray may have relied too heavily on the aesthetic of the film, rather than the substance.
The film’s central storyline is the relationship between father and son, or lack thereof. Some may even call it a story about “daddy issues,” and they wouldn’t be too far off. However, Ad Astra’s heavy handed father and son storyline could not make the emotional impact it so longs to be. Brad Pitt, who is no stranger to playing melancholy types (i.e. The Assassination of Jesse James…), can’t fully nail the performance of Ray, as Ad Astra bares too heavy on the shoulders of Pitt. His performance is mediocre, but I won’t say it’s a bad one. I would even go as far to say that Pitt’s performance is a beacon of light in a rather cloudy film. You can obviously see the passion that he has, but too many times, Pitt’s performance is just plain bland. As for the rest of the characters, it’s hard to fully examine their performances. By the time you start to invest in a character, they’re gone. Gray has a great supporting cast, (Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland) but fails to utilize their talents on screen. Each of their characters, ultimately, have nothing to add to the overall story. For example, Tyler, who plays Ray’s ex-wife, constantly stares longingly at Ray in several scenes. However, I do not fault the actors for their lack of substance. No, the fault here remains with Gray.
Gray’s directing, although an ambitious pursuit, falls short of the mark. Gray puts the responsibility on everyone else, and seems to take a backseat when his role needs to be at the forefront. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is the work of a master. There is no doubt in my mind that Hoytema will receive numerous nominations for his work, and will probably win. But Gray’s script pales in comparison to Hoytema’s achievements, and with the others who really make this film so beautiful. Ad Astra overstays its welcome, even at a rather short two hours. And considering a film of this caliber, two hours should go by fast.
To put it simply, Gray puts all his eggs in the aesthetic of the film, and never hits the mark in telling a story of a turbulent relationship between a father and son. Ad Astra has all the makings of a great film, but cannot capitalize on the different factors that would make this film a masterpiece. Ad Astra proves to be nothing more than an average film about family problems and one’s inner turmoil.
Written and Directed by: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Donald Sutherland