"...marries-big budget sci-fi with engaging ideas and complex emotional dynamics..."

Brad Astra

(093019) In the age of blockbuster franchises and re-purposed intellectual property, it’s rare for a film based wholly on an original idea, whose concept wasn’t pulled from a preexisting source, to receive the big-budget treatment. A perfect storm of sorts is required – a combination of story and storyteller that can warrant nine figures without the crutch of already-extant exposure.

“Ad Astra” is just such a film. It’s a sci-fi epic, one that features the talented auteur James Gray in the director’s chair, working from a script Gray co-wrote with Ethan Gross. And Brad Pitt, one of Hollywood’s last movie stars, leads the way in an actual movie star-type role – something we haven’t seen a lot of from him in recent years.

It has all the trappings of big-time science fiction, but it uses those trappings to tell a much more intimate story. At its core, “Ad Astra” is a film about coming to terms with who we are, about understanding our choices and the motivations behind them. It’s about finding ways to let go of the past while holding onto the lessons we learned from it.

Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut who serves a large role as part of a near-future United States Space Command. He’s one of the best of the best, although he has achieved those heights through a single-minded devotion that has cost him every close relationship he’s ever had. It’s an obsession born of a complicated dynamic between himself and his father, a legendary astronaut and American hero. Still, his regularly scheduled psych evaluations all point to his readiness for whatever duty he might be assigned.

When a mysterious surge of energy from space – one that caused massive damages and casualties on Earth – threatens the integrity of the entire solar system, Roy is brought in and given an unexpected and astonishing mission. See, the folks at SpaceCom believe that the surge is being deliberately caused. The suspected perpetrator? The Lima Project, the deep space expedition believed lost nearly 20 years prior, but actually still active and orbiting Neptune. The very expedition Roy’s father Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, “Just Getting Started”) was leading.

The powers that be want Roy to go to an underground transmission station on Mars – one of the only facilities unaffected by the electronics-scrambling surge – and record a message to be sent to his father in an effort to convince Cliff to stop before it’s too late.

From Earth to the Moon – where the secrecy of Roy’s mission leads to unanticipated obstacles (including a frantic rover chase involving moon pirates). From the Moon to Mars – where Roy’s efforts to contact his father are revealed to be more than what he was led to believe. And from there the voyage continues even farther, though Roy’s journey involves not just outer space, but inner space as well – a gaze deep into the heart of darkness.

“Ad Astra” is a space epic, but one endowed with a weight that you don’t often see. It’s a sci-fi movie in the same vein as Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” – it actually sits higher then that film in terms of relative technological advancement while also echoing the complex emotional dynamics they put forth. It’s a film about isolation, how that isolation can spring from sources both external and internal – and how that isolation can impact us.

It’s a magnificent film to look at, striking a nice balance between the vast and empty grandeur of space with the by-necessity insularity of traveling through it. One of Gray’s stated aims with this film was to treat space travel with an eye toward realism, and while one can argue the particulars of the science, the general aesthetic would seem to have met that goal. There’s a generally claustrophobic vibe to the film – particularly when the actual act of traveling was involved.

Yet Gray also captures stunning moments of sheer size, moments that allude to the magnitude of the void and how very tiny we are within it. The barren hugeness of the lunar surface, screen-filling shots of planetary behemoths – all of it balanced by the tininess of our own achievements. Space is infinite; against that backdrop, even our greatest accomplishments are minuscule and insignificant.

That dichotomy of large and small is mirrored in Pitt’s performance, one in which he utilizes his movie star charisma to full effect. Pitt’s Roy is staid and stoic, possessed of a preternatural calm in the face of danger. He’s not fearless; rather, he has learned how to internalize and compartmentalize his fear, allowing himself the emotional clarity to execute the bob at hand. Yet these still waters run deep – something we’re shown through the ever-so-subtle nuances of Pitt’s performance. His eyes speak the story even as his mouth leaves it largely untold.

The supporting cast does strong work. Jones, appearing largely via video screens, manages to tap into his inner Colonel Kurtz in a way that is both haunting and honest. There are a couple of notables – Donald Sutherland gets some nice run, though both Ruth Negga and especially Liv Tyler are sadly underused. The rest of the ensemble is solid as well, but ultimately, Pitt dominates the screen in true movie star fashion.

Some commentators have compared Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now, with its story of a man sent out to take down a colonel who’s gone rogue. But with its profound loneliness, its whispered interior monologue and its unembarrassed examination of spiritual issues, the film is much closer to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which also dealt with remote fathers and searching sons.

In the final section of the film, Gray is perhaps too obvious (at one key point, the tether between father and son becomes literal), but there’s still something magnificent about the filmmaker’s obsession, which for most of this powerful, strange and unexpected film, manages to be both epic and intimate. It marries the bells and whistles of big-budget sci-fi with engaging ideas and complex emotional dynamics, creating something powerful and enthralling. It’s a first-rate example of the heights that can be reached when speculative work is treated with respect rather than dismissed. It is smart and challenging and visually stunning. It is also one of the best films of the year.

Directed by:   James Gray
Written by:   Screenplay by: James Gray & Ethan Gross
Starring:   Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader
Released:   092019
Length:   123 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language.

AD ASTRA ©  2019 New Regency Pictures
Review © 2019 Alternate Reality, Inc.