Ever since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, scores of our finest filmmakers have done their best to reach for its cosmic heights. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Duncan Jones’ Moon, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar are all chasing Kubrick in some form. The film that comes the closest to catching that landmark may very well be Ad Astra from James Gray. The visuals are suitably stunning and awe-inspiring (helps when you have Interstellar’s cinematographer) and the rest of the craft is a technical masterwork, but it’s in wrapping this deep space journey as a Heart of Darkness parable that Gray truly sets it apart within one of my favorite sub-genres.
The film explores big and challenging ideas that are otherwise missing from productions of this scale. Gray turns the vastness of space into a powerful force that can both astonish and terrify. It is also one of the best examples of light on your feet world-building since Mad Max: Fury Road. At the core though is an emotional story of father and son and how our perceptions of masculinity and human connectivity are passed down through the generations. This is seamlessly woven into larger, more cerebral themes about our place within the universe and humanity’s future. The marriage of emotional and intellectual ideas can be very tough to do, especially within the confines of a big blockbuster, but James Gray nails it here. Ad Astra is not for everyone, but for those who can tune to its ponderous pace and philosophical ruminations, you’ll find an emotionally and morally complex adventure to the edge of the space with one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances. Grade: A+