While we continue to fantasize about living on the moon and space travel being an everyday norm, the reasons why those fantasies exist can be split succinctly into two rationales: society’s desire to advance, or society’s attempt to escape the ruins of a dying civilization. Ad Astra exists as a heartfelt message to those wandering the Earth as global warming continues its steady destruction of the planet — all while we move further and further into science fiction, exploring the outer reaches of space and advancing our technology until we’re steps away from a cyberpunk future. Director James Gray mines a lone astronaut’s relationship with his distant father to uncover sentiments and attitudes that ring powerful to a civilization increasingly looking to the stars.
Unsurprisingly, Ad Astra is not a movie enamoured by its science fiction premise. Yes, there is plenty for sci fi fans to geek out about amongst themselves, but that would be ultimately missing the point of Gray’s emotional tale of connections in a world facing its demise. When Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) discovers that his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) may be alive after decades of radio silence out in space, he heads out on an intergalactic expedition hoping to make contact with him and bring him home. The catalyst for this mission is what is referred to as “The Surge” — a disastrous byproduct of McBride’s father’s purpose in outer space, The Lima Project. As Roy gets closer and closer to completing his mission, he begins to question what drove his father to go so far away from his family, and explores how he has been shaped by the man.
Ad Astra is more akin to Damien Chazelle’s First Man than it is to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but all by way of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gray goes through many of the staples of films set in space only to arrive at his own uniquely intimate film. This is a movie that has all the thrills one would expect when there are space pirates, space travel, and a world facing impending doom, but keeps its head lowered and looks inward rather than outward. In fact, by setting Ad Astra in the cosmos and taking audiences to the furthest reaches of the galaxy, Gray balances a feeling of distance with an intimate lens. Every lingering shot of the vastness doesn’t present a universe of opportunities — it presents a place to escape and hide from society.
All of this is merely to say that James Gray crafted another incredibly heartfelt exploration into those who look for the unknown to guide their lives. Much like Gray’s previous film, The Lost City of Z, Roy is a character who is seeking his father — a man obsessed with the potential for there to be more that he could never settle for what is already in his life. Charlie Hunnam’s character in The Lost City of Z offered a simple arc, as he obsessed with something so much that it distanced himself from the life he had so that he could never truly return. Ad Astra offers itself as a companion piece to that film, and gives another nuanced look at how looking too far forward can result in burning all the bridges that support you.
The star that shines brightest here is Brad Pitt. Ad Astra is very much his movie, pushing him to provide one of his best performances to date in a career that is no slouch — even including this year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where he also stood tall. Narration from Pitt stitched throughout brings a sensitivity to the cold world his character has been wrapped in for his entire adulthood. Surrounded by science and politics, Roy’s decisions are all calculated based on the mission objectives. For that reason, his entire life has become devoid of emotional connections, most noticeably by the absence of his wife (Liv Tyler), who appears almost exclusively in flashbacks and memories — moments evoking a Terrence Malick-like quality in their presentation.
That presentation is where space junkies will probably get the most kicks. Though Gray does an excellent job of sprinkling in the near future as if it exists now — people living on the moon and flights through space that are commercialized like airplanes, for example — it’s Hoyte van Hoytema’s (Interstellar) cinematography and Max Richter’s (The Leftovers) score that add even more heft to an already intense experience. They both provide that intimate-yet-distant quality that Ad Astra demands from every facet of its being. Pitt’s performance is strengthened by incredibly poignant and somber music that feels like a warm blanket draped over every scene, while the cinematography can be utterly devastating both in its portrayal of a single man alone in space, and in close-ups of characters as they struggle with an inner turmoil that propels their arcs forward. Hoytema also takes what would be a pulse-pounding action scene in its own right and frames it in a way that grafts an even larger weight to it. He and Richter work in tandem to bolster a film already brimming with an incredibly nuanced screenplay and performance.
James Gray’s foray into space is something that sounded extremely ambitious on paper — this is someone who is best known for films like We Own the Night and The Yards, only recently providing a look into his version of an adventure film with The Lost City of Z — but it’s no shock that Gray took the idea of space travel and grounded it in a single character study, albeit one that is rife with tangential material to explore. While many will find the film’s sense of scale impressive, it is perhaps better that Ad Astra keeps itself focused on a single arc, and fleshes that out to portray a powerful father-son relationship at its core. This is emotional storytelling at its finest, with Gray taking many risks by bringing his sensibilities to space, crafting a film that is both ambitious and intensely personal.