For a genre that isn’t nearly as represented as you think it might be, the “prestige space drama” has long been one of Hollywood’s most reliable for producing iconic imagery matched only by the intellectual and emotional journey benefiting the vastness of the universe itself. Ad Astra follows an astronaut who must find his father at the edge of our solar system in order to prevent a failed science experiment from destroying our world.
I went in expecting something in a similar vein to 2014’s Interstellar but instead found Ad Astra to be a strong drama that focuses more on a son’s mission to reach out to his father than a heroic science fiction story focused on saving the world using any heavy science.
Set in the future where mankind fights for resources on the moon and has a presence on Mars, we are introduced to Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) of US. Space Command (SpaceCom). He’s the son of famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been missing for sixteen years after travelling to Neptune in the search for intelligent life on a mission called the “Lima Project”. On a routine task to repair some space equipment high above the Earth, Roy is nearly killed when the Solar System is hit by a mysterious power surge.
But that’s not all. It’s discovered these recurring power surges threaten all human life and SpaceCom determines their source originating from – you guessed it – the “Lima Project” near Neptune.
Because of his exceptional military record, his ability to remain calm under extreme pressure and his relationship to H. Clifford McBride, Roy is tasked by SpaceCom to head to Mars to make communication with a father he assumed was dead. But with the hope that his father may still be alive and his suspicions regarding the motives of SpaceCom, Roy eventually defies the orders given to him as he takes it upon himself to go and find his father. But is he prepared for what he will find at the edge of the Solar System?
Brad Pitt gives an outstanding performance as cool-under-pressure and level-headed astronaut Major Roy McBride. While being the perfect cool, calm and collected soldier who constantly passes his psych evaluation might sound like an uninteresting and boring character, it’s the perfect starting point for Roy’s journey into the final frontier. Once Roy realizes there’s a chance his father might be alive there’s alot for Pitt to draw on as the flurry of emotions this astronaut has pushed deep within himself for most of his life only begin to surface. But he can’t allow them to take over and jeopardize his mission or his constant psych evaluations.
There’s not that much to his dialogue but Pitt really draws you in with everything that is left unsaid. Much of this film is made up of close ups of his face and you really appreciate the uncanny mastery he has of the individual muscles that control his face. With such close and personal camerawork there’s no room for performance error and Pitt really showcases the mastery he has of his craft.
Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant) has done an amazing job of creating a mood of mystery, anxiety and potential impending doom that draws you in to a slow-paced story. What really stands out, other than Pitt’s performance, is the use of sound that is unnerving and always keeping you on edge. The pacing can feel a bit slow at times – particularly towards the end – with some scenes almost catatonic thanks to the use of slow-motion in zero-gravity. Still, there’s no denying that this deliberately relaxed pace helps to amplify the unnerving feeling this movie has – especially with the great soundscape that compliments this vibe. Will Roy reach his father? What will happen when he finally gets there? Can we trust SpaceCom?
While the ending may not have been the epic payoff I was hoping for, the journey to get there is filled with anticipation and curiosity and not just with the story revolving around the characters, but the questions surrounding the deeper themes this film is built around. Is it healthy to focus on big picture issues at the expense of minutia elsewhere? How much are we prepared to sacrifice for the good of humanity? What’s the point of that sacrifice if we cannot experience continued human connection? Does it matter if we find other life in the universe if we can’t enjoy life in our own backyard? These deeper questions are at the heart of this movie and prove to be more important than mathematical or scientific ones.
Ad Astra proved to be a very impressive space drama with a powerful performance from Brad Pitt and beautifully shot space cinematography that looked amazing projected on an IMAX screen. Those looking for a more extravagant or action packed blockbuster like Star Wars or Star Trek may be disappointed as this is more serious science-fiction on the level of 2009’s Moon or 2019’s I Am Mother, but with a much bigger budget and more impressive visuals. Ad Astra is about human connection, or the lack thereof, and is a journey through the psyche of a man whose mission isn’t just about saving the world, but uncovering what he truly lost along the way. This is an easy recommendation, especially on the big screen.