My James Gray Review Thread

→ in

(He kind of looks like an aged Chris O'Dowd)

James Gray

Started : The University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts
Student Film : Cowboys and Angels (1991)
My movie ratings often go up or down a point or two after more reflection, research and rewatches.

Latest Review : Dolores Claiborne (1995)

Ad Astra - 2019

Directed by James Gray

Written by James Gray & Ethan Gross

Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones
& Donald Sutherland

The planets haunt us. Silent. Deserted. Inhospitable. Yet despite this their beauty entrances us, and they beckon and invite. Roy McBride of U.S. Space Command sees no more romance amongst the stars however. Played by Brad Pitt, this Major and astronaut is worn out, cynical and somewhat disconnected from humanity. He's about to undertake an incredible journey, from the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere to the Moon, then Mars and on to Neptune in an emotionally repressed state. He needs to reach his father, who is part of a deep space mission that is backfiring on Earth - sending out deadly surges of energy that will soon destroy us all. He never connected with his father. Was afraid of him. Now he must confront him - a vengeful father who accused his crew of mutiny and sentenced them to death. Most of us look to the stars with wonder and enchantment, but for McBride it's only painful, and the corrupt bureaucratic state that's sending him reminds him every step of the way that he's just part of the machinery.

I have to say up front that Ad Astra is an incredibly beautiful and visually astonishing film. Space travel has never been captured so authentically, and as we audibly take in each breath from inside a space suit and see the wonders of different landscapes and hostile environments it dazzles. Finally, the capacity exists to fake a moon landing. The gravity, and lack thereof, has been taken careful account of in most instances, although once again once characters are inside their moon base everyone within is walking in a quite natural manner. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a throwaway comment somewhere explaining this, but if there is I didn't catch it. In any event, 'artificial gravity' is a fanciful concept. In real circumstances just being inside a pressurized building wouldn't mean people would be walking in a normal manner but bounding around awkwardly in low gravity - the same goes for the scenes inside buildings on Mars. The 'realism' James Gray was shooting for doesn't extend to interior scenes.

The visually striking scenery is conjoined with a story and storytelling style that has more than a passing resemblance to Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now, along with it's source novel Hearts of Darkness. In that film a Captain is sent on a journey similar to Major McBride's, with various stages, to intercept a man who has disintegrated in a very similar manner to McBride's father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) - and in that film we're guided along our way with narration from the main character. Brad Pitt's melancholy voiceover infects much of Ad Astra - at times very deliberately spelling out the film's themes along with parcels of incidental information. It's an unfortunate byproduct of testing on a film that many people wouldn't immediately understand and it grates here, imposing itself forcefully throughout our experience. It was apparently added and fiddled with until very late in post-production and I'd love to see Ad Astra again without it. Perhaps one day we'll have that option. McBride's character has an emotionless quality that's necessary - so the monotone drones on, even during scenes of adventure, action and excitement.

Max Richter lets us drift in wonderous, gentle ambience for the most, and there's plenty of emotion in his music - his score sometimes evokes what you'd normally hear in a horror film, and that gives the overall impression of a very interesting and worthy compliment to what's unfolding onscreen. It's eerie and different and is exciting - I can only imagine what James Grey felt when he first heard it. When it explodes during heightened moments it has a powerful psychological effect. A fantastic addition to the excellent work he did on Shutter Island and Waltz With Bashir. It adds to the Oscar-nominated sound mixing on the film, which was handled by Gary Rydstrom (7 Oscar wins), Tom Johnson (2 Oscar wins) and Mark Ulano (1 Oscar win). Capable additions to Grey's crew, and the various effects that provide the visual component of Ad Astra including cinematographer and Christopher Nolan regular Hoyte Van Hoytema, fresh from his work on Dunkirk and having the experience of bringing Interstellar to audiences worldwide. It's a dream team to have and the reason Ad Astra looks and sounds so overwhelmingly good. With the right storyteller, a Stanley Kubrick for example, you'd have one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

So, why didn't all audiences embrace Ad Astra? Why didn't everyone click with the Hearts of Darkness-inspired James Grey and Ethan Gross screenplay? Perhaps there was simply a disconnect between the audience and the emotionless Roy McBride - along with the sullen baboons who want nothing more to do with space travel. The most sullen is Tommy Lee Jones who we're expecting sparks from, but who is simply clouded with despair and melancholic agony. Donald Sutherland gets to accompany McBride a short way as a Colonel but falters early and Liv Tyler almost exists solely as a sad memory as McBride's Earthbound wife. Brad Pitt has to carry this film alone on his shoulders, and I'm sure the audience needs a little more to fully identify with him and be on his side. The film has a powerful theme though, which is very much positive and makes us aware (as much of space travel has) of Earth's glory as our home and miraculous birthplace. The older McBride has been blind to that his entire life, even to the point of rejecting his family and friends. There's certainly adventure inherent in this story, but there's also much darkness and despair and I often ponder how much despair an audience can take before they end up leaving the cinema in a similar state and look on the film they've seen as simply a source of misery. To that end, they need to be tuned in to the ending - and perhaps Ad Astra's James Grey didn't quite get the formula right in keeping the audience with him.

James Grey could very correctly point to Apocalypse Now as a film which has very little in light-hearted comic relief and insist that Ad Astra was his version of that. That Pitt's McBride isn't so much somber as a man who has to bury his emotions to do the job he has to do. There are many instances where the film explicitly points this out to us, showing Pitt undergoing constant tests to his emotional state - one failed test means his mission is over. His heart rate never exceeds certain limits which makes him an ideal candidate for space travel, yet perhaps a poor candidate for an interesting cinematic character. Yet that's not to say McBride doesn't struggle with this at certain times, encountering something he's relatively inexperienced with - his feelings and inner demons. As he journeys deeper into space, he also journeys deeper into his own psyche and repressed humanity. It's interesting to note that film critics as a whole saw something wonderful in this film and audiences in general did not rate it so highly - this film has a wider disparity in that regard compared to most other films I know of. Audiences in general found the film as a whole boring, while critics enjoyed how much this film can be analysed and interpreted.

I look forward to seeing what Grey comes up with in the future - his The Lost City of Z is something of a favourite of mine, and it appears to me that he's just at the stage where he's hitting his creative peak. Ad Astra really seems to be a two-sided coin, with one side much less shiny and fabulous than the other. But the shiny side burns bright. Loneliness, paternal bonding, repressed emotions, humanity, cowardice and bravery, society, criminality, hierarchies - there's a lot to explore in Ad Astra for someone who likes to look closely at films and decipher what they mean and what they're saying. It's a film with a lot of depth, and takes place on a gigantic scale over the course of a stupendous journey. It won't please those looking for some fun - it's not easy. For all of that though, it's a marvel to look at and hear. It's a thinking person's film with occasional excitement and danger in breathtaking vistas - and always making a point. We look to the stars. Alone. Incomplete. Once out there we turn our gaze inward and find we're not alone, and that we've always had what we needed to be at peace. That's the dream, for those open enough to dream it and let it in.

James Gray films I've seen ranked and rated:

Ad Astra
The Lost City of Z
We Own the Night

The Yards

Sidenote: Ad Astra currently resides at #53 on my all time Sci-Fi films list, and I'm considering it for my best looking films list.