Studios have a hard time marketing James Gray movies. His style errs toward methodical, downbeat, and ruminative—not exactly the kind of thing that makes the big bucks. And so for years, trailers have misrepresented Gray’s films, ostensibly to trick people into buying tickets. His 2017 film The Lost City of Z was a case study of how religious certainty leads to imperialism, but it was marketed as if it were an Indiana Jones-esque adventure. So when trailers for Ad Astra were conveniently crammed full of action scene snippets, trained eyes knew to expect something more akin to Kubrick’s 2001.
After a thrilling opening scene, Ad Astra indeed settles into Gray’s slower rhythms. It’s the near future and humanity has been in the process of civilizing space, most notably establishing a civilization on the moon and an outpost on Mars. But something much farther out is worrying Space Comm—the future’s super-NASA, of sorts—and possibly threatening all of humankind. Space Comm thinks it might have something to do with decorated astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who ventured to the edge of the solar system decades ago in a search for intelligent life, but never returned. McBride’s son Roy (Brad Pitt) is tasked with traveling to the outer reaches of Neptune to find his father and figure out what’s going on.
As with many space movies in the modern age, Ad Astra’s visuals are breathtaking and meaningful. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also shot Nolan’s Interstellar, again depicts space as a land of infinite wonder—but adds a dash of nihilism to transform it into a wasteland. Like Claire Denis did with this year’s High Life, Gray minimizes humanity by contrasting us with vacuity, overwhelming the frame with the frightening beauty of nothingness. Even the most pleasing shots, like one of Roy passing his hand through a floating river of moon dust, are haunted by the backdrop of the not-so-great-beyond. Look out and you’ll see purgatory for light-years.
So instead of gazing into what we cannot know, Ad Astra suggests, we should focus on what’s close to us. Well, maybe “suggests” is the wrong word—it’s more like Ad Astra screams that message so loudly that you could hear it in the vacuum of space. The movie is ponderously unsubtle. The visuals could do Ad Astra’s thematic work on their own, but Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross don’t seem to trust their audience, so Brad Pitt’s narration ensures that no showing goes without an excess of telling. The narration translates subtext into high-school level exposition, spelling out the movie’s themes in tidy one-liners and faux-thoughtful quotes. Ad Astra’s addiction to dumbing itself down is grating.
This isn’t some forgone conclusion of protagonist narration. Movies can sophisticate the relationship between showing and telling by making the protagonist’s thoughts unreliable, or augment messages with narration that adds new ideas. But Ad Astra does neither. It just reiterates itself over and over, leaving nothing to the imagination. The only subtext that isn’t vomited out via exposition is alien life as metaphor for the divine, and even that allegory is made fairly obvious by key lines of dialogue. Without the subtle symbology of Gravity—or hell, even the heart-on-sleeve earnestness of Interstellar—Ad Astra devolves into an exercise of dull repetition.
At least Brad Pitt gives the role his all. In the grand tradition of characters that internalize trauma only to painfully exorcise it in the third act, Pitt reaches “Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips” levels of liberation. He actualizes the movie’s themes in ways that are actually interesting. But on the whole, Ad Astra’s ambitious combination of space travel, father complexes, and Heart of Darkness is let down by a compulsion to over-explain. The trailer’s simplistic approach was a little more honest this time around.