With echoes of Kubrick, Nolan, and even Malick, Ad Astra is a film that reaches for the stars in more ways than one. Indeed, there are moments in James Gray’s sci-fi epic where we see glimpses of a modern 2001: A Spacey Odyssey. Other times, Ad Astra flies a bit too close to the sun. The film isn’t quite as original as it thinks it is and the pacing can admittedly be sluggish at times. Nonetheless, this is an expertly crafted visual marvel with an invigorating central performance from Brad Pitt. Even if the journey doesn’t take the audience to infinity and beyond, it does take us to so thrilling and occasionally thought-provoking places.
Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who has spent his whole life seeking his dad’s affection. Although his screen time is limited, Tommy Lee Jones naturally fits the bill of Roy’s cold, distant father. 29 years ago, Clifford McBride left Earth (not to mention his family) on an expedition into deep space in an effort to make contact with alien life. The Lima Project, as it’s called, never uncovered any extraterrestrial evidence and Cliff’s crew never returned home. Despite not hearing from him for nearly three decades, Roy nevertheless wants nothing more than to make his pop proud. As Roy dwells on his daddy issues, he finds himself drifting further and further away from his wife (Liv Tyler), who has even less screen time with Jones.
After years of being presumed dead, Cliff literally surges back into his son’s life when the solar system is plagued by a series of pulses. Roy is told by the military that these pulses seem to be emanating from the Lima Project, meaning Cliff could still be alive. If the pulses continue, the solar system may be on the brink of extinction. The plan is to send Roy to Mars where he’ll send a message to his father’s ship orbiting Neptune, which will hopefully prevent a planetary catastrophe. Roy was never able to make a connection with Cliff on Earth, but he may have better luck on the planet furthest from Earth.
The movie also features Donald Sutherland as a seasoned colonel and Ruth Negga as an astronaut with a dark connection to Cliff, but Ad Astra belongs to Pitt. Between his Oscar-caliber performance in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood and this film, Pitt continues to prove that few modern actors can play the strong, silent type better than him. While much of Roy’s dialogue is restricted to inner monologue, Pitt gets more across through his facial expressions alone. Cinematography Hoyte van Hoytema previously shot two of the most beautiful sci-fi films of the past decade, Her and Interstellar. Through Hoytema’s lens, Ad Astra is another wonder on the eyes. The visual effects team and production designers also do a commendable job at envisioning a future one could easily see existing someday. One of the film’s most inspired set pieces is on a moon colony, which has essentially been reduced to a shopping mall complete with a food court.
Ad Astra has a lot of inventive ideas, but its final destination leaves something to be desired, especially after two hours. While we do get a powerful confrontation between two phenomenal actors, the ending is a tad too safe and predictable for a story of such great ambitions. That said, there is a meaningful message at the movie’s core about fathers, sons, and the lengths some will go just to make contact. It would make for a solid double feature with Claire Denis’s High Life, another sci-fi film about parents and child. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movie comes from the same director as The Lost City of Z, which also revolved around a missing father. Just as Roy lives in his dad’s shadow, Ad Astra may not reach the heights of its forefathers, but it does stand on its own.