Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland
Director: James Gray
Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Most films about the near future envision a world where resources have been depleted, capitalism has expanded outside our solar system, and the human race are doomed to repeat the same mistakes beyond our universe as they did on earth. James Gray’s science fiction drama Ad Astra is part of this cinematic lineage, and yet, there’s something touching about its ultimate message. For though the film gives us a world grappling with near extinction, its scope remains intimate; focusing on stoic astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) as he navigates governmental red tape en route to interplanetary missions.
For Roy, such missions are little more than “punching the clock” type jobs, complete with inane psych evaluations and techno-babble. However, something inside him awakens when he learns that his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), an iconic figure who was long thought dead after his expedition to Neptune went awry, may still be alive. Roy’s superiors tell him his dad is setting off catastrophic energy that’s spreading throughout the entire universe, causing major power outages and destruction on earth and neighboring planets. Of course, their notion of sending Roy as a convoy in order to talk Cliff down from his anti-matter tinkering is foolish from the outset, seeing as how much of his internal issues stem from the estranged relationship with his father.
Though there’s an envoy tagging along with Roy on his quest, including Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) and a small shuttle crew, this is ultimately a single-minded venture into the unknown. There are wry jokes about the capitalist structures thriving in the near future economy, including airline space travel to Mars (which involves a $125 pillow and blanket option) and outer space Subway ports, but Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross mostly keep things in the sober register. As such, Ad Astra may feel slow and ponderous to audiences expecting Gravity-level thrills or trippy psychedelic passages, ala 2001: A Space Odyssey (to which Gray’s film owes an obvious debt), but there’s a minimalism here which works in the film’s favor. Comparisons to the works of Terrence Malick will also undoubtably be made, as much of Roy’s inner thoughts are dictated via hushed voiceover narration. However, these monologues lack the flowery poeticism of Malick’s oeuvre, and are mostly there because Roy is such a reclusive character.
Like he did with his previous picture, The Lost City of Z, Gray presents a central figure with unwavering ambition who nonetheless reveals cracks of self-doubt as things become more bleak. There’s something both foolish and brave about Roy’s dedicated passion to make it to Neptune, which mirrors Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist from The Lost City of Z, who similarly used the exploration of an unknown area of the world as a journey of self-actualization. Roy is ultimately faced with a less than favorable picture of his father, bolstered by revelations from Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a Mars native who sneaks him onto a Neptune-bound shuttle. From here, Ad Astra becomes an internal expedition in which our central hero must deal with his daddy issues; culminating in a meeting between father and son that Pitt and Jones play with surprising subtlety.
James Gray has never been a flashy auteur, and there are times when his detached visual style threatens to become monotonous, but Hoyt Van Hoytema’s cinematography does wonders on what must have been a limited budget for a studio project of this size, and Gray is a smart enough filmmaker to latch onto Pitt in closeup for a large percentage of the running time. If his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tapped into the laidback charisma of his movie star image, then Ad Astra goes deeper into that persona to unlock something more vulnerable. Pitt’s performance here is more muted than much of his past work, and yet his line deliveries and facial expressions tell an emotionally wrought story.
If the third act goes a bit soft; complete with a literal father/son outer space wrestling match and a tacked on ending (let’s not even get into poor Liv Tyler’s role as Roy’s long-suffering lover), then it only highlights a beautifully meditative film that could have been great had it ended with more existential mystery. Still, the idea of human love being the reason for not disappearing into the inky blackness of space is something most dystopian science fiction don’t have time for, and for that alone, Ad Astra is pushing beyond genre and into the realm of sincere humanist drama.