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”)
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
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
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.