Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
I haven’t seen all of the films by writer-director James Gray, but I have loved his last three features. I felt that all three were one of the best films of the years in which they were released. Depending on the films that are released from October to December, this film, also co-written and directed by Gray, will remain for me one of the best of this year. It’s beautiful. It’s exciting. It’s compelling. It’s emotional. It’s powerful. Some critics have compared it to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalpyse Now (1979) and those comparisons are apt, but I would compare this film to Gray’s last feature, The Lost City of Z (2017), a flick that has a similar milieu to that Coppola classic but feels like a spiritual predecessor to this one. This film could in fact be a spiritual sequel to The Lost City of Z, if that 2017 film had been about astronauts in the near future rather than geographers in South America during the early 20th century.
I feel unequipped to unpack even succinctly the themes in Apocalypse Now. However, like the Werner Herzog film Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), which inspired Coppola, part of it is about dealing with the psychological effect of men venturing into hostile environments or so-called godforsaken places, either due to exaggerated curiosity, hubris, obsession or desperation. Coppola’s film was made within the context of the Vietnam War, as a way of commenting on or critiquing that conflict. Similarly, The Lost City of Z is loosely about the psychological effect of men venturing into hostile environments. Gray was less trying to critique such ventures as he was simply trying to understand and empathize with a man who literally gets lost in a jungle. It ends though with a family member, a loved one, setting out to find him in what will be a futile exercise. That’s essentially where this film picks up, except the man isn’t lost in a jungle. He’s lost in the outer reaches of our solar system.
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and World War Z) stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut with the rank of major. He works at a space antennae erected into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. When a power surge from the cosmos destroys the antennae and nearly kills him, he’s assigned to a mission that is tasked with finding the source of the surge and stopping it. The wrinkle is that the government believes that Roy’s father, a legendary astronaut, is the one who caused and is causing the power surge. The power surges continue to happen. If the surges aren’t stopped, they could kill millions of people. Roy is estranged from his father who disappeared into space decades ago. Roy agrees to go on the mission but is troubled and haunted by what he might find and what’s become of his father.
Pitt is in every scene of this film. This film really is exclusively from his point-of-view and Gray’s film is comprised mostly of close-up shots of Pitts’ face, along with voice-over narration from Pitt. It really is a psychological deconstruction of this man and his feelings about family, particularly his father. While Roy loves his father and misses his father, he doesn’t want to end up like his father. Given what’s happened between Roy and his wife, it seems as though he’s on that path. Pitt’s character is also a man dealing with loneliness, given his separation from his family. Pitt has always been a great actor and while I’ve greatly enjoyed him in almost every movie he’s made in the past 20 years or so, it’s probably been that long since I’ve seen him give a performance that has so moved me, even moved me to tears, which he does in this film. If he were to receive an Oscar nomination for this role, á la Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013), it would be well deserved.
On top of that, the direction of Gray and cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk and Interstellar) are brilliant and gorgeous. The production design and visual effects also enrich things here greatly, even though they don’t do anything over-the-top. I liked the color scheme, giving each planet its own almost singular palette. There are also some pretty incredible action sequences, which puts on screen things that I’ve never seen before. It kicks off with the opening sequence involving space diving and one of the most thrilling vertical freefalls put to screen. There’s a car chase on the moon involving space rovers. There’s an animal attack and even a fight in zero gravity that keep the adrenaline pumping for this film’s deliberate pace.
The ending is very strong. It’s also bittersweet. Gray’s film at once marvels at the technical achievements of humans being able to venture as far as they do here, to the outer reaches of the solar system, specifically to the enigmatic Neptune. At the same time, he’s subtly challenging to question what it is we’re looking for and to appreciate what we already have. Despite its title, which comes from Latin, meaning “To the Stars,” this movie is about coming home to Earth and remembering how special and important that so-called blue marble really is.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, bloody images and brief strong language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 2 mins.