James Gray Invited Astronauts to His House to Make Sure ‘Ad Astra’ Was Scientifically Accurate

Director James Gray went to great lengths to ensure that Ad Astra looked and sounded real. However, for a large part of the audience, real does not equal entertaining, despite the presence of Brad Pitt.  

Critics liked the movie well enough that it scored 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but audiences have been far less enthused, giving it a 40 percent score. Is it worth all that effort if the reception is chilly?

What did the director do with the astronauts?

James Gray on the red carpet
James Gray attends ‘Ad Astra’ photocall | Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Many space-themed movies such as Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff try for authenticity by consulting with NASA and people who have actually been to space. Apollo 13 director Ron Howard went so far as to bring cameras onboard a plane that created weightlessness for training purposes. That way, he and the cast and crew didn’t have to fake zero gravity with effects. 

Gray took this process in a different direction. According to Vulture, he invited astronauts over to his own house for dinner. 

“I’m really in awe of those people. They have incredible bravery. I met a woman who hopefully is going to be one of the first female astronauts to walk on the moon in 2024, which is when we’re going back. I was talking to her and she said, ‘Well, I flew on the shuttle a couple of times, and I was on ISS for like 179 days.’ I’m like, ‘What? If I don’t have access to my type of dry pasta for, like, a week, I get rabies.'”

That’s not the only way experts helped. Gray tried to film the scenes set on the moon and on Mars in the desert, but he quickly discovered it’s not very easy to hide desert vegetation.

So he consulted with Jet Propulsion lab, who gave Gray high-resolution images of the moon and Mars. The result was the first movie shot “on location” on Mars.

How has ‘Ad Astra’ been received?

The film opened to about $19 million, which isn’t bad for a movie with an arthouse bent. Gray is known for making indie  dramas like Two Lovers and The Lost City of Z, so a space drama, however, cerebral, was new territory for him. 

While critics mostly embraced the movie, it seems to have left audiences wanting. A typical review went like this:

“I didn’t care for the bleak outlook of the future. There was nothing that really made me care about the characters or invest in their storyline. And the science was super sketchy. That being said there were some beautifully shot scenes and some of the psychological aspects were interesting. But I would not recommend it.”

The movie has made $92 million worldwide so far, due at least partly to Brad Pitt’s name, but that’s about how much the movie cost, so it will make little if any money when all is said and done.

What’s the legacy of ‘Ad Astra?’

It seems that maybe audiences went in expecting a thriller like Gravity or at least an emotional drama like Interstellar and were disappointed when they felt they didn’t get one or the other, even though Ad Astra opens with a harrowing space accident and is about father and son astronauts reconnecting after being estranged.

Interstellar had a similar theme with a father and daughter. Ultimately, Gray isn’t known for making commercial fare, and that can leave some people cold. 

Perhaps time will be kind to Ad Astra, but Gray seems to have anticipated the mixed reception. 

“Sometimes you are lectured to and people like it, and sometimes you aren’t and people like it. There’s no right way to approach it … I’m sure there’ll be some people who see Ad Astra and say, ‘Where’s the acting?'” he said.