Ad Astra: a daring sci-fi triumph [critique]

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Ad Astra (2019)
Twentieth Century Fox France

James Gray sends Brad Pitt to find his father on the far reaches of the galaxy and makes this cosmic adventure seem like a psychoanalytic trip.

France 2 invites you to spend the evening in space, this Sunday. The channel programs two unseen films in clear: Ad Astra, by James Gray, then Life – Origin unknown, by Daniel Spinosa. Here are our reviews of both.

Life, a super efficient survival but lacking in originality

We could consider the entire filmography of James gray as a reformulation of the work of Francis Ford Coppola. Of Little odessa To The Immigrant, he spent the first twenty years of his career, and his first five films, reflecting on and reinvesting the themes of Godfather (immigration, impossible inheritances, the family that protects and stifles …) by bringing them back to a less epic, more modest and intimate dimension. With The Lost City of Z, he left the shadow of the Corleones to tackle Apocalypse Now – the journey, the rise of the river, the existential enigma, the face-to-face with oneself at the end of the road. Ad Astra, his first foray into science fiction, continues the business of the previous film and also remixes the memory of Coppola’s Vietnamese odyssey. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is tasked with going to the far reaches of the solar system in search of his father (Tommy lee jones), yet given for dead for years. Along the way, he will be confronted with existential questions as immense as those which agitated Willard when he went up the Mekong in the footsteps of Kurtz.

James Gray approaches science fiction the same way he does the adventure film in The Lost City of Z : as a metaphorical territory above all, where it abuses the conventions of the genre, circumvents them, dodges them, favoring the poetic dimension of situations rather than their “realism” (if we can speak of realism in this context). It is clearly a question here of witnessing a slow psychoanalytic journey, a succession of stations where the hero plunges more and more deeply into himself as he moves away from the Earth. Ad Astra is superbly “designed”, magnified by the surreal photo of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Christopher Nolan’s director of photography) and the heartbreaking melancholy flights of the score by Max Richter (The Leftovers). This sometimes almost abstract plastic dimension does not mean that Gray does not deliver the quota of cinematic thrills required by this kind of project: on the Moon, he films a maddening, memorable chase, the spatial equivalent of that, new- York and rainy, The night belongs to us.

In the shoes of the astronaut who braves dangers while holding back tears, Brad pitt, sublime, is overwhelming with resigned strength. With this new anthological role just after the Tarantino, 2019 is a great vintage for the fan club. One day we will have to wonder more at length about the surge of space explorers with sad looks that will have fallen on the screens in recent years, all these cosmic adventurers carried by the spirit of conquest but with their eyes clouded by the grief and regret – Ryan Gosling in First man, Sean Penn in the series The First, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, Robert Pattinson in High Life… The 2010s will have definitely been those of depressive SF, bereaved, its head in the stars, certainly, but full of dark ideas. We also think of Natalie Portman fromAnnihilation, which did not leave the cow’s land, but evolved in a symbolic jungle quite close to the one surveyed here by Pitt. As Annihilation, moreover, Ad Astra will divide. But we can bet that his supporters will love him unconditionally. It’s a superb film and a tightrope walker, sad and flamboyant, a magnificent risk-taking. What if, rather than a new variation on Apocalypse Now, James Gray had just signed his Falling for something ? In our mouth, it’s a compliment.

Ad Astra: A cut scene reveals a new epilogue

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