Among the sludge of Disney-governed pop cinema—in which effects aren’t special, in which actors deliver dialogue that’s as memorable as iPhone instructions, in which a massive global hit is seen by decree and forgotten days later—James Gray’s “Ad Astra” feels miraculous. It’s a space epic invested with piercing, spectral body and soul.
Until now, James Gray has been thought of as a cinephile’s director. Gray sprung onto the American cinema scene more or less at the same time as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David O. Russell, though he never caught on in the same fashion as those flashier artists. Gray is a classicist who reveres 1970s American cinema as sacred text, and films like “Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” “Two Lovers,” and the especially extraordinary “The Immigrant” are atmospheric and fragile, abounding in hushed, careful craftsmanship.
Gray contrasts his fastidious New York compositions with the emotions vibrating underneath his characters, particularly those played by Joaquin Phoenix, whose rejuvenation as an actor began under Gray’s tutelage.
This contrast—between haunted, hollow-feeling creative people and the dynamic settings that ironically reflect their estrangement back toward them—is Gray’s entryway into the science-fiction genre. In “Ad Astra,” Gray seizes the moments that genre directors normally take for granted as transitional pillow shots, and makes them the subject of his film.
Much of “Ad Astra” involves rockets flying through space, actions that Gray informs with a rapturous quality that comes to suggest a universal quest for belonging, an existential journey with allusions to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick.
Gray’s aesthetic is leeched of the white noise that litters blockbusters, which are terrified of inviting audience contemplation. There is quite a bit of silence to Gray’s vision of space, and the rockets travel with a tremulous quality that suggests the work of such a journey. At times, Gray’s space vehicles are poignantly awkward, such as when a pod is too damaged to port with another craft, and is left bobbing away into the ether of the black and star-pocked landscape.
The flow of Gray’s images, as crafts push onward from the Earth to the Moon to Mars to mysterious regions of Neptune, is nothing short of poetry, stanzas reflecting a man’s contradictory urge to connect with society by leaving it. The lonely grace of such set pieces is contrasted with moments that underscore the work of departing from a planet. When a rocket launches, Gray lingers on the storm of flames bursting from its bottom, as the sound mix renders an opera out of the explosive breathing of the fire. Gray also lingers on the face of his protagonist during the extremis of take-off, fashioning weirdly beautiful prisms from the light reflecting off his helmet, which often obscures his face, an effacement that the man consciously seeks.
The man is Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a celebrated astronaut of the future, whose father is the legendary H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer of now-routine voyages to the Moon and Mars. Clifford has been missing for decades, having disappeared near Neptune due to work on the Lima Project, and Roy is scarred by the loss. Roy is the traditional astronaut-as-obsessive-workaholic, though Gray and Pitt render him less traditionally as a wanderer of stilted sadness and repression.
Roy resists touch, even by his once-wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), who inhabits his dreams and musings as he travels to the outer limits of the solar system to reach his lost and potentially insane father, who may be the cause of a series of “surges” that threaten existence.
As extraordinary as this film’s imagery is, as revitalizing as it is of science-fiction and of mainstream cinema at large, the most glorious compositions here are Gray and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s close-ups of Pitt’s face. There is an astonishing moment early in “Ad Astra” when Roy learns that Clifford may be alive, and we see Roy’s cool, taciturn face as it ripples with the anxieties and resentments of an abandoned boy.
In what may be his greatest performance yet, Pitt offers a pulsing visual soliloquy on loneliness, displaying remarkable control over the finest nuances of his physicality, complementing the internal narration that Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross have supplied him. This narration is reminiscent of the voiceovers of “Apocalypse Now” and various Malick films, but is stripped of their bombast, reducing hard truths to heartbreakingly matter-of-fact declaration. When Roy says that he “watches himself from the outside,” he is speaking for untold numbers of self-hating introverts who have felt the need to “achieve” to compensate for what they perceive to be deficit of their being.
A subtext creeps into “Ad Astra:” It is a story of ambitious men that’s been made by ambitious men. Roy’s occupation with his father and his father’s legacy comes to resemble Gray’s obsession to equal 1970s cinema, a suggestion that’s intensified by the presence of actors like Jones and Donald Sutherland. Yet Gray seems to wonder if his quest is a folly, a search for greatness that willows out the ecstasy of ordinariness.
Many of us are so desperate to earn love that we miss out on love.