There are space adventures that look at the cosmos and see laser gun fights and killer aliens. Then there are others that look at the infinite and see fear and solitude.
“Ad Astra” fits firmly into that latter camp, alongside contemplative movies like “Arrival,” “Contact” and “First Man,” where the mileage between Earth and deep space can’t compare to the divide in the broken relationships between the astronauts and their loved ones.
Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an emotionless astronaut whose life was changed when his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, making his first venture into space since 2000’s “Space Cowboys”), was presumably killed in a mission called “The Lima Project” that explored the deepest recesses of outer space. Roy follows in his father’s footsteps, becoming a space traveler to continue his work.
In flashbacks and voiceovers, we see how deep Clifford’s absence affected Roy’s life. It caused a rift in his marriage with Eve (Liv Tyler, dealing with a headstrong astronaut for the first time since “Armageddon”), it invades almost every thought for him and makes him question who he is as a man.
After pulses from a station in deep space cause massive power outages and death on Earth, known as “The Surge,” Roy is approached by the government to head out and see if they’re being caused by the same mission Clifford was leading. Getting there won’t be easy, as there are secrets Roy has to uncover and rivalries he didn’t know existed stopping him from reaching his goal.
Directed by James Gray (“The Lost City of Z”), who co-wrote the movie with Ethan Gross (TV’s “Fringe”), “Ad Astra” is a space mission movie by way of “Apocalypse Now” mixed with Terrence Malick’s slow, thoughtful pacing. The cinematography, shot by “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk’s” Hoyte van Hoytema, uses natural light and dimly lit environments to make the audience feel as claustrophobic as Roy is in space. The world building, which sees the moon colonized, commercialized and its people at war with each other, adds depth to the story and Roy’s frustration.
While it often feels unpredictable, it’s revealed to be a pretty straightforward story because it’s mostly free of unnecessary subplots. It’s the story of a man looking for answers about his father while fearing he might become as obsessed with space as him and hurting others in his life.
Pitt plays Roy with understated brilliance, forced to convey emotions using only his eyes, as astronauts in the program are forced to be almost catatonic drones, free of anything on Earth that would be a distraction to the mission. The movie tends to undercut his performance with a heavy dose of over-explanatory voiceovers, where Pitt monotonously asks questions about his father and conveys his feelings into the ether. Pitt’s a talented enough actor to get those thoughts across with an exhausted, hangdog look.
“Ad Astra” is likely to be one of the last thoughtful, original big-budget blockbusters from 20th Century Fox after it being bought by a franchise-heavy The Walt Disney Company. Despite some minor shortcomings, it should be celebrated for giving audiences something thrilling, cerebral and emotional.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live