Ad Astra, director James Gray’s beautifully realized ode to parental connection and our ambitions to explore, checks off a panoply of references – everything from obvious science fiction fodder like 2001, Solaris, Gravity, and Alien, to films like Apocalypse Now, where the metaphorical journey up river takes our voyagers to the heart of darkness at the far reaches of our solar system.
Written by Gray along with Ethan Gross, the film is surprisingly ruminative for a modern studio tentpole. It makes space to breathe with a generally relaxed pace interspersed by moments of startling action. This is mirrored by lead character Roy McBride, perfectly portrayed by Brad Pitt as a man fighting at every moment to remain in control. His father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was lost in space a generation before while engaged in an experiment to seek out life in the outer edges of the solar system. Roy has lived in his father’s shadow, finding ways of maintaining the family legacy while still looking upwards.
When electrical pulses from space destroy Earth’s long range communications, Roy must travel to Mars to send off a signal and connect to whatever is causing the bursts. The mission is steeped in secrecy and danger. Along the way, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and John Ortiz shape the journey. Roy struggles with memories of his wife (Live Tyler) as he tries to remain calm amid the psychic strains of both the mission and the voyage.
Shot by the remarkable Hoyte Van Hoytema (with Caleb Deschanel providing some additional photography), the look of the film is fantastic. It echoes many moments that made Gravity so visually intoxicating. (Despite the giant screen I watched it on, I couldn’t help but wish for a 3D presentation, as lonely as that sentiment might be.) With music by Max Richter and some fantastic sound design, this is an aural feast as well, and will eventually make excellent demo material at home.
Yet all the whiz-bang counts for nothing if the story isn’t rich enough. While it’s not quite as philosophically deep as it presents itself, Ad Astra is an accessible and intelligent piece of speculative fiction. There are many moments where disbelief must be checked, but also others, often quite harrowing, where the believability of the situation is extremely kinetic.
The last act is a bit disjointed, and things may wrap up a bit more conveniently than the buildup had eluded. Still, there’s so much to enjoy about the journey, so many tiny details to revel in and ideas to explore, that it’s all pretty much forgiven by the end. The film has a sense of hubris and ambition. Gray stretches credulity at times but somehow pulls it off, thanks in large part to his tremendous lead.
Pitt’s onscreen charisma is the main thrust that drives the film. With micro-expressions under his eyes and a gritted-teeth determination, he makes Roy feel like a coiled spring at all times. This is hardly a perfect character, but Pitt conveys the cauldron of anxiety and anger within Roy that’s constantly being suppressed yet could erupt at any time.
This isn’t a movie to get lost in the nitty gritty and specifics. It works because, for the most part, it feels like it’s working, like effort has been put in to adhere to plausibility over the narratively convenient parts. Plenty can be scratched at if one chooses, but there’s something satisfying about it simply feeling like it all hangs together and leaving it at that.
Ad Astra incorporates big ideas and big screen visuals in an attempt to not only entertain, but to inspire. Its mission is to create something magical, and in many ways it does so, granting us a vision of interplanetary travel that feels both authentic and operatic at the same time.