Like the late Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, James Gray makes movies that suggest the work of a late 19th- or early 20th-century artist transported to the present. This may be somewhat intentional on Gray’s part, as the New York-based writer-director has frequently cited artists from these periods as influences. He based the look of The Yards (2000) on the work of French realist painters, drew on the narrative structure of Dostoevsky’s White Nights for Two Lovers (2009), and took inspiration from Puccini’s operas for The Immigrant (2013). Yet one doesn’t need to know these references to feel that Gray’s movies are distinctly out of step with most contemporary American cinema. His directorial style communicates a certain stateliness and formality reminiscent of silent movies; his characterizations tend to be relatively clear-cut, with most of his subjects’ behavior stemming from a combination of societal forces and parental influence; and his emotional content is generally direct.
What makes films like We Own the Night (2007) and Two Lovers so special is that they convey how our era might have looked to our ancestors—in particular, what people from the past might have focused on if they could consider how we interact with each other today. Gray’s period dramas The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z (2016) achieve something similar: they make viewers feel comfortable in the past and better primed to navigate it. Gray’s latest film, Ad Astra, might be described as a departure in that it’s his first science-fiction film and his first to be set in the future, but these differences are merely superficial; the director’s charmingly retrograde approach to storytelling remains as pronounced as ever. The film’s three acts are so clearly demarcated that it wouldn’t feel out of place if a curtain came down after each one; the psychological conflicts are delineated in a clean, Freudian manner; and the themes are purposely timeless. As a result, Ad Astra seems to belong, refreshingly, to no era at all.
Gray has described the film as a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now; and while the film betrays the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece in its extremely detailed depiction of how space travel might look in the future (not to mention its chilly tone), the story feels less like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse than it does Coppola’s source material, Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. Before the action begins, a title card informs us that, in the near future, outer space has been colonized and humanity has united in the mission to find and make contact with intelligent life outside our solar system. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut whose father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), remains the most decorated explorer in the history of the post-NASA space age, having led the first manned mission to Neptune. Clifford left earth when Roy was just 16 years old and hasn’t been heard from in years, yet he’s continued to influence his son after his disappearance. Roy has followed in his father’s footsteps in terms of his career, and he’s developed a fear of getting too close to other people. (In brief scenes, Gray shows us Roy’s estranged wife, played by Liv Tyler, who essentially explains this to him and us.)
Soon after the movie begins, Roy, working on the surface of a giant space antenna, gets knocked off the structure by heavy objects falling to earth. Later he learns that these objects were jostled by cosmic rays emanating from the far reaches of the solar system, which have started causing disasters on earth. Scientists suspect that Roy’s father may have triggered these rays from his space station on Neptune (from which he’s long stopped sending communiques). To find out, someone must travel there to confront Clifford and, if he’s the culprit, stop him from emitting more rays. Roy signs up for the job, partly out of a sense of responsibility and partly out of a desire to reunite with his old man.
Ad Astra charts Roy’s journey, which is marked by a progressive loss of control: with each leg of the trip—first to the moon (which Gray depicts as a corporatized tourist trap reminiscent of the red planet of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall), then to Mars, and finally to Neptune—Roy encounters new dangers and receives less support from other people. By the time he reaches his father, he is alone and emotionally shattered by his voyage.
Gray creates a compelling frisson between his classical narrative structure and his immersive filmmaking. The director likes to keep his camera close to the characters, thereby emphasizing their immediate experience, or else at a distant remove to convey the vastness of outer space. As usual in Gray’s films, the rich sound design goes a long way in building the atmosphere; an especially inspired conceit is that the music and sound effects occur between large patches of silence, which brings a sonic component to the depiction of space’s unforgiving immensity. One learns about the film’s future society mainly from peripheral or background details. There are almost no direct references to discord on earth, but key lines of dialogue hint at bad times ahead. When another astronaut asks Roy whether he’s seen combat, the hero replies he has—at the arctic circle. The post-NASA space program seems to be a military operation, suggesting that the world’s governments have managed to unite only through collective militarization. These details resonate, but generally in hindsight; the experience of watching Ad Astra is primarily visceral, as Gray ties viewers to Roy’s physical exertion and peril.
Unfortunately Gray takes us out of the action almost as often as he immerses us in it. Ad Astra features some rather frustrating voice-over narration by Pitt, which basically explains all the film’s metaphors and themes. We learn plenty about Roy’s struggle to understand his father from what he tells us explicitly; ditto his sense of personal responsibility for his father’s transgressions. This old-fashioned device is in keeping with Gray’s predilections, but it also deprives viewers of the pleasure of sussing out the film’s ideas for themselves. The narration isn’t entirely flat-footed, however; the moments when Roy confesses his feelings of worry and self-doubt are moving precisely because they run counter to Pitt’s withholding performance, which reveals next to nothing about what his character thinks. Gray creates a chasm between Roy’s thoughts and actions that comes to seem as great as the ones Roy crosses in outer space, and this gulf poignantly reflects certain patterns of traditional male behavior, namely the tendency to suppress emotion in the name of duty. Still, I wouldn’t have minded if Gray had scrapped the narration altogether, since that might have meant that the third-act revelations about Clifford wouldn’t have been telegraphed from the first.
Then again, viewers who have followed Gray’s career shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Roy’s father is a disappointment to his son, as powerful but imperfect father figures figure in nearly all of the director’s seven features. In Little Odessa (1994), there was Maximilian Schell’s self-regarding Russian emigre, a father of two good-for-nothing sons who cheats on his dying wife. In The Yards, James Caan played a corrupt factory owner who tries to do well by his extended family but is undone by his history of shady deals. We Own the Night featured both Robert Duvall’s emotionally distant police chief and the Russian gangster (Moni Moshonov) who acts as a surrogate father to Duvall’s wayward grown son. The Lost City of Z was the first Gray film to make a protagonist of its troubled father, explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who consciously neglects his family in his pursuit of the fabled Amazon location of the title. And now with Ad Astra, the director grants more narrative weight to the conflict between a father and son than ever before. It’s no understatement to say that, in the movie, the fate of humanity depends on whether the hero can resolve his issues with his dad—one might say that Gray has taken his thematic concerns to a cosmic level. In drawing on and amplifying ideas that have appeared elsewhere in his work, Gray heightens Ad Astra‘s sense of familiarity, making the future seem like something out of the past. v