I would be surprised if any 2019 feature has a more epic sweep than “Ad Astra.”
James Gray’s interstellar road movie, whose title translates as “to the stars” in Latin, begins on the International Space Station, where astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) clings for dear life onto the scaffolding of one of its satellites, as a bowel-shaking power surge sends his colleagues, and soon McBride himself, tumbling into the cosmos.
He’s barely recovered from the nearly fatal incident before he’s summoned on a classified mission to address the source of the power surge, which is killing thousands on Earth: cosmic rays emanating from Neptune. But even in the unspecified “near future” of “Ad Astra,” reaching the farthest planet from the sun is still a hike—one that requires pit stops on the moon, where he’s threatened by pirates on rovers scavenging the surface for minerals, and then Mars. At some point along the route, like a motorist pulling over to assist in a roadside hazard, McBride is forced to address a mayday signal from a Norwegian space shuttle. This detour leads to the movie’s best horror-film jump scare; I audibly gasped at the revelation, one of many visceral responses Gray conjures.
Part of the job description of good science-fiction films is to forecast the frontiers of space and technology, and in their script for “Ad Astra,” Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross paint an especially plausible picture of cosmic capitalism. They casually reveal that: 1) We, like other space-faring nations, have secret underground bases on Mars; 2) They’re staffed by members of the U.S. military, like Roy McBride, thus realizing the Trump Administration’s dreams of a “Space Force”; and 3) The moon has become so accessible, and developed, that airlines fly passengers commercially. An onboard pillow and a blanket costs $125; when you land on the lunar surface, Subway and Applebee’s await.
Every moment of wry wit, scant as they may be, are welcomed, because “Ad Astra” is a monumentally heavy picture, with nods to Shakespeare and Conrad and, closer to its generic home, to the twin towers of art-house sci-fi: Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” For all of its spectacular visual effects—with a budget approaching $88 million, it is by far Gray’s most expensive movie—“Ad Astra” really takes place in the tortured headspace of a prodigal son confronting familial demons. Like Gray’s excellent last feature, “The Lost City of Z,” it’s a tale of obsession in which the epic setting is the window dressing for a more interior journey.
As we learn early on, Roy’s mission to save humanity from imminent extinction is indeed a personal one, because it involves a task his father, astronaut Thomas McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), embarked on 16 years earlier, never to return. When Roy is informed that Thomas may still be alive—and that he might be involved in the destruction seeping from Neptune—it sets off an existential crisis in our normally unflappable protagonist.
The role offers Pitt his meatiest role since “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and his work here—filled with sorrow, and quietly shattering—is masterly in its nuance. Stubbly, square-jawed, and aging into Randolph Scott, Pitt imbues Roy with the stoicism of a Neil Armstrong and a dedication to the workaday world of interstellar travel that is peerless: He is never one to rapture in his colleagues’ wonders and giddiness of viewing distant worlds, and our own, from space. His gaze is set eternally on the completion of the job.
We learn much of this from Roy’s voice-over narration, a novelistic device that rarely infringes on a highly cinematic experience. Pitt’s tones are mournful, reflective and truth-seeking, like the scattered thoughts of a lonesome noir detective on a case that hits too close to home. Only when the words become overly expressive—the phrase “sins of the father” is trotted out for our easy comprehension—does the conceit become overbearing.
This literalness of vision is the film’s sole hiccup. While it’s unfair to say that “Ad Astra” loses its way as Roy’s quest nears its denouement, it does cast its line too eagerly into the waters of mainstream cinema in ways that are at odds with the lyrical tenor that preceded them. We don’t need to see—more than once—Roy’s head superimposed onto a video of Thomas’s visage to know that he fears becoming his father. Likewise, their final encounter is an exercise in leaden symbolism.
None of which negates the stirring individuality that “Ad Astra” contains in droves. While it’s not the artiest space odyssey of the year—that would still be Claire Denis’ “High Life”—it is unusually deep for studio sci-fi. That it may also be James Gray’s most determinedly commercial movie is a testament to the director’s continued ability to deliver on his oxymoronic specialty: somber entertainment.
“Ad Astra” opens in theaters Friday, Sept. 20.