James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), co-written with Ethan Gross, is a stellar (sorry) achievement. Occupying the space orbited by Sunshine (2007), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time (2016) (not Life’s Journey but the shorter version narrated by Brad Pitt), it succeeds where First Man (2018) fails, to symbolize one man’s traumatized state with the infinite void of space; and it stands in good contrast to Blade Runner 2049, which loaded the atmospheric gravitas onto various earthbound locations. The film also draws from Solaris (both 1972 and 2002) and Gravity (2013) for certain sequences. Brian Tallerico wrote a rave, as did Richard Brody. Pitt’s acting, the cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema), the production design (by Kevin Thompson), and the score (by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe) are all to die for. But it’s not a perfect film, knowingly eliding over its weak plot structure by deeming it “beyond the scope of this” film.
One point has proven polarizing: the voiceover, in which Roy McBride (Pitt) narrates his inner state, sometimes forming blunt commentary on events just depicted. Some people hate it, including Walter Chaw and Jessica Kiang. Others such as Tallerico and Brody chalk it up to the film’s consistent adherence to McBride’s consciousness and appreciate it as such.
Both positions are true, but I prefer to take a middle road. Like the voiceovers in recent Malick films, notably Voyage of Time and The Tree of Life (2011), the point is less about what they’re saying and more about the mood that they create with their soothing tone and carefully pitched keywords. To me, this is the ideal way to deploy voiceovers, and exposition would just be cheating (such as in Song to Song (2017), a rare Malick misstep).
This is a deep (though not complex) and emotional film that only achieves full force in a darkened room before a large screen. Don’t wait for Netflix.