Ad Astra is an art film in blockbuster clothing

James Gray’s philosophical space odyssey starring Brad Pitt is imperfect, but its ambition and singularity are hard to argue.

It’s perplexing that James Gray is so revered as the most quintessentially American of filmmakers in Europe when America itself could give a rat’s ass about most of his work. Gray works mainly in genre-adjacent projects — cop movies, crime movies, period romance — but despite their outward commercial sheen, they’re thornier and more inward films than they may initially appear. QAll this to say that while Ad Astra is a space movie starring Brad Pitt, it is nowhere near the blockbuster it’s being touted as. Ad Astra is an art film set in space starring a beloved movie star doing practically none of the things we expect from him — a rather self-consciously emotional exercise in subverting expectations that works better on paper than it does in reality.

Roy McBride (Pitt) is an astronaut for NASA in a relatively near future that has seen both the Moon and Mars colonized; the constant conflict over resources and territory has spilled over to space, where there are commercial flights to the moon and humans who have never lived on Earth. McBride’s dedication to his work is his major personality trait; he’s driven his wife (Liv Tyler) away and exists seemingly only to excel at his job. He’s infamous around NASA for being so calm and even-keeled that his pulse has never gone in excess of 80 bpm, which makes him an invaluable asset, but what truly makes him indispensable is that his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) is the most highly decorated astronaut in NASA’s history. Clifford’s been missing for decades and presumed dead after an ambitious mission gone wrong, but recurrent power surges on Earth have been linked with the elder McBride’s mission. NASA assumes that the best person to go get him would be his son, who has wrestled with his father’s “ghost” for years.

Despite being rooted in the emotional connection between a father and a son, Ad Astra is a fairly chilly and elegiac space movie, closer in tone to Solaris or even 2001: A Space Odyssey than, say, Interstellar. Much of Ad Astra is based on mood and movement — space sequences that are eerily silent, a lead who barely emotes at all, a handful of action sequences that impress through unconventional directorial choices…

On one hand, Ad Astra is a rare beast: an auteur-driven, effects-heavy art film that eschews pretty much commercialism outright. It doesn’t have much dialogue, but it has a lot of portentous and superfluous voiceover from Pitt that feels somewhat like a studio stipulation à la Blade Runner. (At some point, very late into this movie that has clearly established himself as a story between a son and his estranged father, Pitt goes “The son always bears the sins of his father” on the voiceover — as if it were not already blindingly clear from everything else we’ve seen thus far.) I don’t know how much creative control Gray really had here, but there’s a feeling that the film was somehow compromised or retooled. It’s rare that a minimalistic drama also features a scene where the protagonist fights a wild space ape, and those two things don’t co-exist naturally within Ad Astra.

The problem with all this is that Ad Astra registers as thoughtful and cerebral but not particularly connected to real emotions. It’s generally a compliment to compare any filmmaker’s work to Malick, but there are parts of Ad Astra that reminded me of the more navel-gazing aspects of recent Malick joints: overwritten voiceover that dips into pretension (I’m pretty sure Pitt goes as far as to say “Why are we here?”), a checked-out protagonist who seems to view the world through a thick haze… all of which ties into exposition-heavy “hard” sci-fi. It’s hard to find the humanity in all of it, even if Gray’s really pushing for it. Pitt is incredible in what has to be his most restrained and naturalistic performance ever, but so much of what we know about the character comes from this voice-over.

To be fair, excessive voiceover is one of my least favourite things in the world, and white guys being sad in space one of my least favourite subgenres, so it’s not that surprising that I had trouble connecting with Ad Astra beyond its often incredible plastic properties. Still, I can’t bring myself to fully dismiss a $100-million art movie in this vein. The preview audience I saw the movie with yesterday absolutely hated the movie and walked out of there perplexed at the lack of action — which is often a sign you’re doing something right. ■

Ad Astra opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 20. Watch the trailer here: