davidehrlich’s review published on Letterboxd:
There are any number of memorable images from James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” a singularly introspective space adventure in which Brad Pitt journeys to the outer limits of our solar system just to hear Daddy Lee Jones tell him that he doesn’t care, but none have stayed with me quite like the shot of Pitt’s astronaut landing on the Moon — the very first stop on his interstellar voyage into the heart of darkness. Once the ultimate symbol of humanity’s possibility and the nearest proof of our species’ infinite reach, the Moon has since been reduced to a low-gravity version of Newark Airport, complete with American fast food restaurants and the general vibe of an upscale New Jersey outlet mall. The point is clear even before Pitt’s character double-underlines it: There is nothing truly new for man to discover among the vast ocean of stars, because we take ourselves with us wherever we go. The only real terra incognita in the universe is the human soul.
That moment is something of a skeleton key for Gray’s movies, most of which are a bit more earthbound, but all of which — from Coppola-inspired family tales like “The Immigrant” to Coppola-inspired Campbellian epics like “The Lost City of Z” — trace some kind of intimately circular journey into the unknown and right back out again. The same can be said of his muted but magnificent new “Armageddon Time,” which distills the director’s mythic sweep into an ultra-autobiographical coming-of-age movie that could easily have become the Jewish-American “Belfast” if not for its Talmudic moral streak and fierce aversion to sentimentality.
Only James Gray would saddle a modest self-portrait about his memories of sixth grade with a title that makes it sound more like “Apocalypse Now” than any other film ever has (a reference to candidate Reagan’s nuclear hawkishness, “Armageddon Time” borrows its name from a 1979 Willie Williams reggae jam famously covered by The Clash). Likewise, only James Gray would render that self-portrait into such a powerful story of post-war assimilation that a family outing to see “Private Benjamin” might resonate with the same cosmic scale as a trip to Neptune.