Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
China/USA, 2019. New Regency Pictures, Bona Film Group, Keep Your Head, MadRiver Pictures, Plan B Entertainment, RT Features, Regency Enterprises, Twentieth Century Fox. Screenplay by James Gray, Ethan Gross. Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema. Produced by Dede Gardner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan, Yariv Milchan, Brad Pitt, Rodrigo Teixeira. Music by Max Richter. Production Design by Kevin Thompson. Costume Design by Albert Wolsky. Film Editing by John Axelrad, Lee Haugen.
In the not-too-distant future, humans have moved their presence beyond this here planet Earth and are operating transfer stations on the moon (complete with Subway franchises) while developing a colony on Mars for later use. Brad Pitt plays an astronaut who works on some kind of space antenna that extends from terra firma to the outer stratosphere, upon which he suffers a near-fatal accident after the latest in a series of recent electrical storms causes explosions and fires on this structure as well as around the globe (and provides for an incredibly thrilling opening sequence).
Pitt is brought to his superior officers and informed that they would like him to travel to the red planet and help them determine if these continuous storms might be connected to his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a scientist who traveled into the outer reaches of the solar system decades earlier in search of intelligent life and disappeared somewhere around Jupiter. Our hero has his reputation for being a reliable, sanguine figure put to the test by the news that his dad might still be alive, holding it together on a voyage to the lunar surface (where he survives a nasty pirate attack) but, after landing on Mars, has his emotional equilibrium begin to crumble and threaten his usefulness to the mission.
James Gray’s fascinating career has covered a number of genres and his attempt at space saga is most welcome, he creates a gorgeous visual landscape across which his intimate drama can play, and whose scientific illiteracy matters little when compensated for by the poetic visual imagination he applies to this muted adventure, barely able to compose a shot without showing you something dazzling. The effect of the film’s best sequences is only broken up by the fact that the story works more in theory than in practice, Pitt’s connection to his dad is never convincing and you find yourself only intellectually sympathetic to a relationship situation that you never actually feel emotionally grounded in.
As a result, his poetic “love is all you need” narration doesn’t work and feels superfluous, but his grounded performance helps at least make it bearable. The years have created a depth in the movie star that he has rarely shown before, all the quiet close-ups of Pitt’s face reveal narrative richness in every line around his eyes, but with so little context for his feelings and the fact that Gray relies on stereotypes of family dramas without ever being specific about them, the power of his performance is muted. It’s a beautifully realized film whose best moments are unforgettable, but it won’t be for all tastes.
Academy Award Nomination: Best Sound Mixing
Critics Choice Award Nominations: Best Visual Effects; Best Sci-Fi/Horror Movie
Venice Film Festival: In Competition