“Ad Astra” is not your typical kind of movie that gets $100 million and stars Brad Pitt. Yet the fact that it landed a wide release seems as much a miracle as anything these days. Like the “Solaris” remake by way of “Apocalypse Now, James Gray’s introspective and touching space odyssey has a way of seeping into you.
Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut in the US Space Force 30 years in the future when space travel has become normalized. He’s first seen tending to an outer space antenna that’s hit by a sudden power surge, and when he lands, he’s approached by the top brass. Turns out his father (played by Tommy Lee Jones,) who he thought vanished on a mission years ago when he was a kid, may still be alive, and the surge might be related to the mission experiment.
Roy has not particularly dealt with this well; in fact, he hasn’t dealt with it at all. After repeated psychological profiles it’s revealed that his heart rate is always consistently low, as if he closes himself off completely to any sort of feelings. To keep the experiment from potentially destroying everything, he’s tasked to travel to a Mars outpost in the hopes of contacting the ship and asking them to stop.
The scenes set in the outer bases feel like a modern sci-fi story in the best of ways. All the wonder of space has been mostly drained; the moon has been colonized and various countries fight over parts of it. Virgin Atlantic offers regular service to the moon. It has the effect of enhancing the story, dealing with all the little minutiae and actually imagining how these types of systems and transit would be implemented in the future.
The few action sequences are well directed and fit in nicely to the rest of the character work featured in the film. Pitt gives a marvelous performance, a reminder that he’s a movie star for a reason. No easy task, considering the amount of feelings Roy forced himself to bury and the constant war he fights to keep them from bubbling up. The emotional moments in the finale all land thanks to him.
Less effective is the voice over one suspects was added during numerous reshoots. While it lends the film a Malickean sort of awe and despair, it has a tendency to overstate the themes a bit too much, though it is by no means intrusive. Liv Tyler, featured as Roy’s wife Eve, isn’t given much to do either. Though the few moments she gets help shed light onto Roy’s own issues, but it would’ve been nice to see more of their relationship beforehand. The focus is all on the father and son relationship, and it’s in these themes the film excels, not to mention hints at spirituality.
Gray’s film is definitely not one for everyone. One scene in particular may feel out of place, and the voiceover has been a deal breaker for many. Others might find its lack of action and ponderance a bore, especially if they can’t get invested in the main character. Give it a chance, and “Ad Astra” will reveal its riches to you. It’s a film deeply interested in man’s search for meaning, in finding closure from past wounds or in one’s place in the universe. More than anything, it critiques the ideas of toxic masculinity, highlighting the damage done to children and to those around them when they grow up.