Courtesy of Fox/Disney
Brad Pitt is the anchor in James Gray’s outstanding “Ad Astra,” a quiet and intimate space epic that relies on emotional context to guide the viewer into orbit (complete with Space Pirates!)
In the film, Pitt plays closed off astronaut Roy McBride whose been sent to travel across the solar system to find his long-lost father, and maybe get some closure as to why he abandoned him. The film is as much metaphorical as it is literal, and in the process makes room for a couple of otherworldly sequences that straps the viewer right into the first person experience that’s thought-provoking and meditative.
In other words, this isn’t a big budget extravaganza where there’s one gigantic action set piece after the other, and “Ad Astra” has been marketed on Pitt’s charm (who, between this and “Once Upon A Time In...Hollywood” is having a moment), so those looking for an escapist space film should steer clear.
The film is set in the near future, where space is heavily commercialized and you can find the restaurant chain Subway on the moon. Enter the aforementioned Roy (Pitt) who struggles being close to people - chiefly his ex, Eve (a vastly underused Liv Tyler) - as they often take a back seat to his mission. In this case, he has been recruited via the US government to carry out a costly (and timely) trek to Neptune, the site of the Lima Project, to see if it’s related to a series of cataclysmic energy bursts threatening earth’s existence.
It’s a strange request considering the Lima Project was headed by Roy’s dad Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) - often regarded as a decorated hero - who hasn’t been heard from in almost 30 years.
So what might start out as an intergalactic and simple space odyssey morphs into a sophisticated metaphor on toxic masculinity and isolation, as Roy battles with his inner demons (often relaying his thoughts in constant, rather conventional, voice overs throughout the film) and vigorously completing psych evaluations like something out of “Blade Runner.” But, make no mistake, “Ad Astra” digs deep into its father-son themes.
Leaving much of the emotional lifting to Pitt, he delivers a performance so steeped in anguish and pain, that it’s compelling watching his character develop his feelings. At the start, he’s unsure if finding Clifford is a good idea, and Pitt finds the balance between love and betrayal, concluding that he still loves his dad, even if the feelings aren’t mutual. Pitt hardly leaves the screen, and it’s probably one of the better performances the actor has done in quite some time.
To be sure, Gray and his filmmaking team (notably cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, production designer Kevin Thompson, and visual effects supervisor Allen Maris) have crafted a gorgeous widescreen angle of the solar system. And when Roy moves from Earth to the Moon to Mars and then Neptune, the glistening color patterns are engrossing, and there’s two sequences which left my jaw on the floor.
The first is the opening where Roy is working on a space antenna like a construction worker on scaffolding (an object so unbelievably tall it reaches from the safety of earth all the way near the international space station) when suddenly there’s a power surge and dozens of astronauts are left falling to the ground (with a parachute). To make his own escape, Roy attempts to switch the emergency power off and takes the ultimate sky-dive from the bleakness of space to the earth below. It’s an exhilarating moment where Gray does a flawless job navigating the viewer under Max Ritcher’s enigmatic score and setting the bar sky high.
The other sequence is when we find out there’s a mining war on the frickin moon and Roy, to reach the station set to blast him off to Neptune, has to fend off a scantily crew of lunar space pirates in a “Mad Max” style road battle that’s one of the best action sequences captured on film.
While those entities would suggest the starting point for a kick ass FX sci-fi driven space quest, “Ad Astra” is not that movie. Though fans of Gray (“The Lost City of Z”) and Pitt might not get too excited about the prospect of this being a film with a moral compass regarding our attachments to family (plus we could do without those choppy voice-overs), but the film never tethers to the gravitational pull of lazy studio filmmaking. Rather, it’s an ambitious and authentic space opera that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable.