At each point of his journey into deep space, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is placed under psychological evaluation. It is his job to remain cool and calm on the most treacherous of missions. When he is sent on a secret assignment to retrieve his father (Tommy Lee Jones) who has been presumed dead for years, from the far reaches of the solar system his usually reliable mental wiring is placed under enormous pressure. Director-writer James Gray has covered father-son terrain before in his previous film, The Lost City of Z, based on the life of doomed explorer Percy Fawcett who went missing in the Brazilian jungle in 1925. With Ad Astra he looks to the stars, setting his film in the not too distant future to explore a fraught relationship between father and son.
The influence of iconic science-fiction films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are evident from the outset with the narrative following a path akin to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Gray has crafted an ambitious outing that propels its chisel-jawed hero through an asteroid belt of melancholy and menace as it traverses grand themes of love, loss and masculinity. There’s an awe-inspiring majesty to the haunting images and thrilling bursts of action that pierce the sadness that Pitt conveys with an understated performance as Roy. It’s a distant kind of sorrow that due to the pragmatism involved in his job is kept hidden away, bubbling underneath a glacial surface. Pitt works wonders by transmitting his pain through his eyes and the things he doesn’t say.
Gray’s screenplay co-written with Ethan Gross feels its way through this detachment with creative visual metaphors and small flashbacks to the events that have swerved Roy’s personal life off course. His partner Eve (Liv Tyler) has left him and for that he admits culpability. He’s also been living in the giant shadow of his father’s achievements and desperately clinging to the strong work ethic and stoic manliness instilled in him by this absent and celebrated figure. That is until a sudden jolt from an electrical storm sends him hurtling back down to earth from the space ladder he is working on and sets off a chain reaction of cataclysmic proportions for not only the earth but his psyche too.
At a time when it seems the world is on the brink of destruction, led by reckless and power-hungry men, Gray has created a male character who learns to question his behaviour in the wake of past mistakes that are threatening to destroy the planet. Maybe a shift in attitudes will save the world? The film works on multiple levels with ecological threats, conflicts and new frontiers all feeding into the bigger picture. Gray approaches it all with a mix of sincerity and a satirical sense of humour.
There’s an intimacy and clarity to the action that makes it magnificent spectacle; one of the highlights includes an exhilarating shootout on the moon that plays out like a Western with high-speed space buggies in place of horses. The detailed backdrop of a moon base that resembles a large train station complete with flashing neon lights and tacky attractions is just one part of the spectacular world building on show.
The final epiphany which sends Roy off on a different course is deeply moving in Pitt’s hands who turns in a performance that holds attention and delivers emotional payoff. Combined with Gray’s visually impressive take on the space movie it all culminates to cement Ad Astra as a major entry into the sci-fi canon alongside more recent additions such as Gravity.