Thirty years ago, esteemed astronaut H Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) led the Lima Project into deep space in search of intelligent life. Contact was lost years into the expedition after reaching Neptune and the crew are presumed dead, until electrical surges that threaten humanity are traced to McBride’s ship. Informed that his missing father may still be alive, Clifford’s son Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who followed in his dad’s footsteps, accepts a mission to travel to Mars, in an attempt to make contact and resolve the desperate situation.
With the gravitas of 2001: A Space Odyssey and isolation of Moon, writer-director James Gray alongside co-writer Ethan Gross have crafted a sci-fi epic with low-key, independent film sensibilities. Ad Astra offers both cosmic thrills and intimate self-exploration. Gripping buggy chases that could be Mad Max on the moon and tense distress call responses meet Roy’s subdued physiological evaluations.
Reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong in First Man, Roy is a laser-focused professional but a detached soul who’s distant from his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) even when he’s not in orbit. Massively contrasting Pitt’s outing in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood earlier in 2019, as an easy-going stuntman with a perpetual glint in his eye. Roy’s life has been dictated by the overwhelming urge to pursue his celebrated father’s dream.
Pitt narrates the film and while his sombre musings can be touching, especially during the film’s final scenes, it does occasionally interrupt the silence of space and a bolder move would’ve had only Roy’s emotional assessments spoken aloud. Similar to the voiceover Harrison Ford infamously loathed, feeling it distracted from the theatrical version of Blade Runner, not all narrative elements need to be laid out and verbalised. Whereas the baseline tests that featured in Blade Runner 2049 further the story, similarly to Roy’s routine examinations.
While Ad Astra’s narration doesn’t come close to that level of unnecessary, its more than capable leading man alongside Max Richter’s atmospheric score should be doing the heavy-lifting, guiding the audience through the breathtaking, haunting and gripping gear changes.
Although Pitt largely carries the film in one of his best performances, Lee Jones offers impactful support as a tormented man who solely exists to find better, failing to see what he already has. A destructive trait he has seemingly passed on to his son. While Tyler appears as a distant memory, Ruth Negga who leads the Mars base and Donald Sutherland as a grizzled colonel are both solid in minor roles.
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s shimmering cinematography is both strikingly realistic and gracefully wonderous. Awe that’s occasionally disrupted with man’s ability to turn the magical into the mundane, as lunar travel has become excessively commercialised.
Ad Astra works as both a dismantling of the complex bond between father and son, and a cautionary tale of appreciating what earthly wonders and ties we already have, before we look to the stars for more.