After one viewing I think this is James Gray’s finest work—and I say that as a big admirer of Gray as an auteur– each of the last four films of his has made it onto their respective years’ top 10
Thematically layered, intelligently conceived, executed– and visually ambitious
Gray is a Francis Ford Coppola acolyte and one of the layers here is to see the film as such. It’s Greek mythology and although Coppola doesn’t have a copyright on that or generational conflicts, father/son patriarchy — when you look at Gray’s oeuvre (not just the casting of Duvall or James Caan) it’s hard not to see in that context. The plot structure here in Ad Astra is from Apocalypse Now. Individual scenes seem to be taken nearly directly from that film (how about scene with Harrison Ford in Apocalypse Now where they tell Sheen about his mission). Tommy Lee is Brando, Pitt is Martin Sheen (complete with voice-over). The different stops along the way– the monkeys here (a nod to 2001 and a fascinating evolutionary statement) could be the playboy bunnies or Duvall stop— the moon is the French plantation, — mars the Do Lung bridge set piece, etc
The rest of the cast is fine but this is largely a one-man show and Pitt is more than up to the challenge. It should rank as one of his greatest achievements. His character has an impressive arc (starting out as the stoic low heart-beat-per-minute) and several showcase moments (like his ad-libbed voice message to his dad) in a transcendent film at or near masterpiece-level film
Like Gray’s 2013 film The Immigrant (Gray’s finest film prior) it’s impressive world-building in the production design. He and DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Nolan’s recent go-to since Wally Pfizer including Interstellar) have put together impressive action set pieces (the car chase on the moon is wild, the Roger Deakins Blade Runner 2049-like structures on Mars jaw-droppingly picturesque)
I think it broadens and enhances Gray’s last film- The Lost City of Z– both meditations on uncontrollable ambition, both sort Apocalypse Now– films frankly.
There’s also an undeniable religious/theological dimension to this work—we start the film with Pitt’s fall from above, the search for answers from an absent father.
I think all of this here constitutes a top 10 of the year quality film- very well composed, designed, and acted film. However, there’s an interconnected visual design used in 50-100+ frames that needs to be celebrated and studied. Gray uses a reoccurring photographical sun-spot in countless frames. I couldn’t really capture a good screenshot grab here but it’s used at the very beginning and its carried on throughout. I’ve never seen it use like that as a formal reoccurring motif—beautiful and distinct. In the thousands of films I’ve seen— this is it—Gray must have labored over the film in every frame in such detail. He spoke openly about using Tommy Lee Jones’ voice in different pitches and speeds and frequencies in the sound-mix design and I believe this is the visual equivalent (showing Pitt, as the son the presence of his father throughout his journey). The sun spot motif is a gob smacking formal/visual achievement and it’s what takes this film from a top 10 of the year to a top 5 or even a masterpiece
Must-See top 5 of the year quality for now after one viewing