Tuesday saw the first ever IMAX screening of Ad Astra, anywhere in the world, so we went along to London’s Leicester Square to take a look. Is James Gray’s space saga worth seeing, and in particular, worth seeing in laser-point clarity on an absolutely humungous screen?
In Ad Astra, Gray returns to some of the subjects he favoured in The Lost City of Z: an meditation on man’s need to indulge in the dangerous heroics of exploration, portrayed as a sublimated desire to escape the family – and the forging and straining of bonds between fathers and sons that can result.
Brad Pitt plays the slow-pulsed astronaut Roy McBride, who must travel through space in an effort to contact his missing-presumed-dead father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). The forthright Clifford, it turns out, may be the cause of a series of deadly antimatter pulses that are ravaging Earth from an origin somewhere near the edge of the solar system.
Another way to put it is that Brad Pitt (basically playing Neil Armstrong) is looking for love from his daddy Tommy Lee Jones (doing a riff on Buzz Aldrin) who is somewhere near Neptune because he cannot sanction mankind’s tomfoolery.
Gray uses the basic mystery plot (is Clifford alive? Is he the source of the pulses?) as a hook on which to hang beautifully-lit shots of Brad Pitt wrestling with his daddy issues, Malick-style – and then punctuate that with occasional bursts of surprisingly high-octane action.
He also peppers the film with a raft of of sometimes-fun, sometimes-distracting cameos. In one scene Natasha Lyonne pops up as a vaguely stoner-ish Mars immigration official. Jamie Kennedy has little to do (and is barely recognisable) as a sergeant stationed on the same planet. A strangely bland Ruth Negga gets little more than two scenes, but Liv Tyler really gets the short end of the stick here, as the woman Pitt leaves behind. Her few brief lines are delivered via old phone recordings Pitt sometimes watches when he wants to feel even more melancholy than he already does. I wonder why she was cast? Just an Armageddon reference?
Pitt himself, on the other hand, is in every scene, and in a lot of those scenes he is called upon to be perfectly still, save for the tremble of the micro-musculature just below his eyes. A lot of near-affectless acting that perfectly conveys the sentiment “I’m assure you I’m relaxed, but inside, shh, I’m a roiling sea of anger!”. This is all accompanied by a sad, contemplative voice-over, which repeatedly threatens to spill over into “Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler… why must you wrestle inside of me?” territory. (Fortunately, Gray never tips quite that far into parody).
Of course, if you’re thinking of shelling out for IMAX tickets, you’re going to want to know what it looks like. Van Hoytema does great work on the film’s cinematography. From the quiet majesty of space to the sudden bursts of action, to every wrinkle around Pitt’s doleful eyes, his camera does its job. The lighting is beautiful, and those dreamy editing patterns when Pitt is lost in his thoughts are highly seductive. Overall, Ad Astra looks absolutely gorgeous on the IMAX screen; if you have the chance, this is the way to see it.
The plot, however, is more of a mixed bag. In a post-screening Q&A, Gray told us the storyline had its roots in an idea to retell the Odyssey from the perspective of Telemachus. But ultimately this movie is a little like if Malick found an action movie script he liked, and tried to bend it to his will. The action scenes, when they come, are fantastic – a personal favourite was the horror sequence that comes when Pitt needs to answer a nearby mayday call, somewhere near Mars.
But along the way Gray requires us to suspend a lot of disbelief, because some of the character decisions in this movie, particularly towards the end, are jaw-droppingly bananas. In a Mission Impossible movie that suspension of disbelief might be possible, but I have to admit it’s hard to watch a thoughtful, deliberately paced portrayal of Brad Pitt wrestling with his feelings for his father, and considering his place in the universe… and then making some seriously deranged choices in order to keep the plot moving forward.
I suspect many in the audience will refuse to accept these registers fudged together – the quietly existential study of longing, the 2010-esque portray of nuts-and-bolts space travel, and the monkey business of a very dumb action movie. I don’t think it worked, but I really enjoyed watching it try. This is a genuinely eccentric film, and I’m glad that somehow it got made.
A few grace notes: I was happy to see that there was a branch of Yoshinoya on the moon. The cost of a blanket on Pitt’s commercial flight to the moon got a good laugh. And I loved the image of a stray dog snuffling for scraps in the dust on Mars.
Ad Astra is a melancholy, deliberately paced, occasionally berserk and ultimately extremely silly film. I liked it. And it looks great on IMAX.
Ad Astra is released in the UK on September 18, and in the US on September 20th.
Photo credit: Francois Duhamel. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios