Do sons inherit the sins of their fathers? Ad Astra is an extremely weighty existential space quest, but fans of director James Gray and star Brad Pitt can rest assured: both are in top form.
As predicted, Ad Astra is a mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey (and its Russian counterpart Solaris) and Apocalypse Now (or its source material, Joseph Conrad’s brilliant novel Heart of Darkness). But the best news is that this film bears marked similarities to James Gray’s earlier work (We Own the Night, The Lost City of Z).
Gray loves dark, tragic stories that he narrates in powerfully neoclassical forms, though for some ridiculous reason this deters both large audiences and the people who hand out the major film awards. In terms of recognition, he must for the time being content himself with the great devotion of his fans and the appreciation of colleagues like Damien Chazelle and Francis Ford Coppola.
We hope very much that we’re mistaken, but we don’t think Ad Astra will change this. Even though it is a sci-fi film starring Brad Pitt who is in no worse form than he was when he outclassed Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The megastar resists the temptation to act grandiosely or to seduce the viewer. His character is an exceptional astronaut but no great hero. The loner who is proud of being utterly unflappable flies to Neptune to find out whether his father knows anything about the cosmic rays that are threatening earth.
His father (a superlative Tommy Lee Jones) was once a brilliant astronaut who couldn’t have cared less about his son and who may have become the Colonel Kurtz of our solar system. There is no lack of adventure, but ultimately this film is about existential crises and father-son complexes.
Do sons inherit the sins of their fathers? Are they doomed to make the same mistakes? The breath-taking cinematography by the masterful Hoyte van Hoytema immerses you in the heart of darkness. That of the universe and that of man. It would be a lie to deny it: James Gray gets a bit lost in his ambitious space opera, but you best believe that he does so very memorably.