Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Science fiction can be used to explore serious issues and complex emotions in creative ways. Using the future or advanced technology, it can look at us from different angles, making us reflect on our world in a way we never have before. The outer space drama Ad Astra is an intriguing examination of loneliness and personal connection (among other things). It is the character study of a man who has pushed everything away (family, love, happiness) in favor of the job that took his father from him. It is also an adventure, though the action and suspense themselves are less significant. This is the type of movie that requires patience from viewers. Do not expect spectacle or grand payoffs. If you enjoy quiet, contemplative, intellectual sci-fi, this is a very rewarding experience.
In the near future, Major Roy McBride is an astronaut who has devoted his life to space exploration. Decades earlier, his father led a team to Neptune in search of intelligent life and has not been heard from in many years. Power surges have begun causing severe problems on Earth and they are found to be originating from his father’s space station. Roy is tasked with traveling to Mars so he can attempt to communicate with his father and, hopefully, put a stop to the threat.
Ad Astra (Latin for "to the stars") features the second great performance from Brad Pitt in the last couple of months (after Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). On the outside, Roy is a hero following in the footsteps of his legendary father. On the inside, he is emotionally damaged. He has become an expert at compartmentalization, this way he can remain cool and focused under extreme circumstances. Due to this, the only thing still in his life is his work. The potential reemergence of his presumed dead father forces him to confront his choices. Yes, he gets things done, however every second not spent working is a struggle of regret.
Since Ad Astra is so quiet, Pitt gets a lot of moments of introspection. He plays them with plenty of nuance. As he gets closer to possibly learning his father’s fate, it becomes clear to us how he really feels. His line delivery is relatively flat and most of his close-ups include no obvious reactions. Yet Pitt is able to get us inside Roy’s head, through his facial expressions more so than his narration. It may seem like he is not doing anything. That is what is so impressive. His subtlety contains a lifetime of feeling.
The visuals are also pretty remarkable. This is even more amazing when you consider that the movie does not focus on them. When we see a rocket flying or a ride across the surface of the moon, they are stunning, but are more about what they mean for Roy. The gorgeous shots out the window of a space shuttle are there because of what they say about the protagonist, not just because they are awe-inspiring. This is a great looking movie, cold and dark, with the natural beauty of space. It uses its special effects in service of its story, not for their own sake.
Ad Astra (113 minutes, not including the end credits) has been directed, produced and co-written by James Gray. His screenplay (co-written with Ethan Gross) is about isolation (both literal and figurative), the human need for connection and sons who become their fathers. Despite the size of this production (I saw it in IMAX and it looks awesome), he never misplaces his themes. It feels oddly intimate even with longshots showing the vast emptiness surrounding Roy. It is an ambitious approach that will not appeal to everyone. Those seeking escapism from their sci-fi will likely be bored. I do not mind spectacle, but prefer my sci-fi thoughtful and filled with ideas as opposed to explosions. If you share my tastes, this is a must-see.
4¼ out of 5
Brad Pitt as Roy McBride
Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride
Ruth Negga as Helen Lantos
Donald Sutherland as Thomas Pruitt
Liv Tyler as Eve
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross