Ad Astra is the new sci-fi epic from director James Gray (The Lost City of Z, Two Lovers.) Here, Brad Pitt is a spaceman looking for a monster in the outer reaches of the solar system – a monster that just so happens to be his father. For Pitt’s, Major Roy McBride, it is a mystery deeper than the cosmos itself. The result is a brooding, existentialist tale that often takes itself too seriously and does little to convince curious moviegoers sold by “Brad Pitt in space” as a concept.
Coming off one of the finest performances of his career, as the devilishly charming stunt double Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Pitt’s characterization of Roy McBride is anything but a hotshot. The character we meet is a cog in the machine. Very early in the film, a space station explosion plummets him towards the Earth from the upper atmosphere and, we’re told later, his heart rate barely increases. This is just fine for his superiors who, seeing a body they can use on high-risk missions, send him to the other end of the solar system to find his stranded and long-thought-dead father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).
As the film progresses, Roy’s facade starts to peel away, revealing darker tendencies, as he gets closer to finding the man who left him behind. As Clifford McBride, Jones is cold and remote, seemingly always on the edge of violence, ready to cut deep with just a word. In essence, he’s like many difficult fathers. The film does little to delve into his motives and he remains just as enigmatic to the audience as to his son. Donald Sutherland shows up with calming reassurance as Col. Pruitt, an old friend of Clifford’s who joins the mission to keep a check on Roy’s stability. Ruth Negga just about walks away with one scene as Helen Lantos, a commander on the Mars base, when she reveals her own personal connection to Roy’s father. Side characters, other astronauts and such, come and go. A b-story involving Roy’s ex-wife Eve (Liv Tyler) gives us little reason to care. The film often feels overstuffed with distractions from the simple story at its heart.
But, man, is it glorious to watch! Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, no stranger to outer space epics having cut his teeth with Christopher Nolan on Interstellar, uses light and sharp colors to give us a solar system teeming with life. A shot of Neptune, for instance, captivates with brilliant sensual blues against a sharp black sky. It also remains committed to a sense of realism, nowhere more apparent than the plausible food court on the Moon complete with familiar brand names.
As a director, Gray is certainly ambitious and trustworthy. Following his previous film, the underappreciated Lost City of Z, Gray is hungry for a blockbuster. And in Ad Astra, he takes wild detours to get there. A thrilling car chase on the lunar surface, for instance, is one of the most impressive action sequences I’ve seen this year but seems like a forced shift in overall tone.
Otherwise, I suspect Ad Astra may come to be part of Gray’s ever-expanding gallery of sleeper hits. While I applaud its grand vision, the third act is a drag that offers little surprises aside from an all-too tidy ending. While indeed a visual stunner with an exciting premise, the best I can offer is a shrug and a congratulatory nod towards the team for the strong effort.
By Christopher Rodriguez