Brad Pitt stars in director James Gray’s astral Sci-Fi drama as the skilled spaceman who is government-ordered to save earth from obliteration known as the ‘surge’, following a misguided mission made by his father thirty years earlier.
*MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
In the near future, we’re told, where Subway and Applebee’s are unassumingly available for cosmonauts’ consumption inside space camps, Roy McBride (Pitt) is the astronaut, regimented to find the source of the surge that threatens earth, but it comes with an emotional price.
When space pioneer, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy’s father, became beset by a mission to find intelligent life across the solar system thirty years ago, the government didn’t anticipate his doomed expedition would endanger Earth – and now it’s reached a quantum level.
Though uncommitted it seems, to the attainment of his marriage with his wife Eve (Liv Tyler), or anything else for that matter, he is committed to his graft. Roy is ostensibly unbridled by life on earth but his monotonous, meditative voiceover tells us otherwise. So not only does Gray serve a stelliferous spectacle of space exploration, to the painstaking triumph of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Gray also pulls you inward, into the mind of Roy through his mournful monologue – about a life to the contrary.
When Roy is serving on the International Space Antenna that transcends the atmosphere, an explosion soars from space, carrying with it colossal consequences. And Roy’s ensuing tumble back to earth is realised with dramatically dizzying effect. The mind-bending visuals are nothing short of vertiginous as they place the viewer in first-person perspective, as if suddenly made to navigate the descent yourself.
If anyone has had the privilege of being ensconced in Walt Disney World’s ‘Mission: Space’ – EPCOT’s centrifugal motion simulator thrill ride, you’ll be reminded of the lightheadedness that followed, in all its zero gravity grandeur.
As part of the ‘Lima Project’ spearheaded by his father 30 years earlier, SpaceCom summons Roy to relay their researcher’s findings about an anti-matter Cliff created that could obliterate the solar system – oh and there’s a slight chance that Roy’s father may still be lurking up there too.
This sets in motion a series of events that are besieged by emotional and physical traumas during his extraterrestrial travels, because not only is Roy made incumbent to essentially save the planet, he may also be reuniting with his distant dad after some 15 years. Nothing like space for a bit of space.
Valiantly, Roy sets out on his space odyssey, under the supervision of Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) where he must trek from Moon to Mars and eventually Neptune, but soon comes face to face with some strikingly strange snags along the way. From an ambush by ‘Moon Pirates’, which does nothing but create a bit of congestion, to an attack by a floating blood-crazed baboon en route Mars; the sequences, though strange, are spectacular.
The lunar buggy chase across the moon’s surface is especially memorable, not because of the frivolous fight for territory, but the visualisation of the moon’s cratered surface. Gray told Empire that the sequence was created via a “strange methodology” – completely CG moments combined with footage captured by infra-red cameras in the Mojave desert. Because Gray wanted bright the light and sand, actors donned space suits and had to drive around the Mojave dessert. However because of its obvious vegetation, Gray ultimately replaced all of the sand with real, high-res photos of the moon and Mars, provided by JPS (Jet Propulsion Lab).
‘Strange methodology’ though it was, the result is that Mars looks like Middle Eastern desert horizon when they eventually land. But there’s no time for Mars gazing, Roy is duty bound to transmit a message via laser link to his father and capitalises on the opportunity to voice some suppressed sentiments that he’s carried with him for too long.
Hitherto, Roy is permitted to continue his cruise, only at a satisfactory and steady BPM observed at every psycho evaluation, but his emotions finally overwhelm, jeopardising his suitability for the mission ahead. What follows is a perilous plight to salvage more than just the solar system and it’s underscored by raging rock music. And amplifying the jeopardy is composer Max Richter, defined by musical compositions of the mellotron, guitar and drum and bass.
The film thus far is a visual masterpiece and while usually, the director invites a key Cinematographer or Composer onto the project to supplement the story, these components work unabashedly to opposite effect, as the story seems supported by the latter. The consistent contrast of orange and blue hues – notably diametric on the colour spectrum – is what enhances the poignant points in Roy’s plight. The fiery orange that juxtaposes the cool blue is the perfect pairing to conceptualise the emotional weight he’s carrying majority of the time and helps to externalise Roy’s emotional battle of feeling hot and cold all too often.
Last but not least, laudations for realising the the wow-inducing azure blue of Neptune. Every time the planet passed, the extended shots of the star-strewn sky, glittering galaxy all filmed on 35MM plunges you into a Planetarium type venue for fulsome effect. It’s a stunning Sci-Fi drama that is best appreciated on the silver screen. Even if the story is forgettable, the imagery is unforgettable and that is not regrettable.
DKY? Gray was conscious of the ‘Sheldon Coopers’ from draft to execution – or what Hitchcock called ‘The Plausibles’ – so he “deep dived into a black hole of face-checking to ensure the space stuff rang true”, Pitt confirmed in an interview with Empire.