Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler
Austin Family Critical Rating: ***** of *****
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: **** of *****
I dreamt of my late father the night after first seeing James Gray’s Ad Astra, which I suspected would happen as soon as I walked out of the cinema. I’ve had a recurring dream for years, in which my father is discovered to be alive, and it’s always something new that kept him away, necessitating a cover-up story. Our protagonist in Ad Astra, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), experiences this same thing in a real-life scenario – albeit on a larger and more cosmic scale. His father, Dr. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was a renowned astronaut who travelled to the edge of our solar system in an obsessive search for intelligent life. He disappeared near Neptune decades ago, along with other crew members of the Lima Project, and has since been presumed dead.
Despite his father’s absence creating a significant void in his life, Roy nevertheless followed in Clifford’s footsteps, becoming a respected astronaut whose heart rate has famously never risen above 80 beats per minute. This serves him well in outer space (particularly in a thrilling early sequence, in which Roy free falls through Earth’s atmosphere), but less so in his personal relationships, where he is distant and removed. He keeps his emotions so locked away that his marriage to Eve (Liv Tyler) has completely dissipated.
As the film opens, Earth is experiencing power surges originating from the far corner of the solar system, and with each surge, there is an increasing human death toll. The U.S. Space Command suspects the surges are coming from the remains of the Lima Project near Neptune, and they send Roy on a mission to Mars, where he will record a message to his father in an effort to stop the surges.
The world building in Ad Astra is astonishing from the beginning. I was particularly struck by the way in which God seems more present and religion more on the minds of astronauts in this version of the near future, as they roam the galaxy and find no evidence of intelligent life. It’s just us out there, and we have to reckon with our loneliness. There’s also the commercialization of the Moon, where all of Earth’s problems have followed – fighting for territory, globalization, class hierarchy. There’s a particularly unsettling chase sequence in which Moon raiders surround Roy’s convoy, and the chaotic shootout that follows is nerve-wracking in its quietness. Ad Astra offers such a beautifully uncommon view of outer space – I’d almost compare it to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), but it’s a little less cerebral than that film, and, as is Gray’s specialty, more focused on the human element.
As with all of Gray’s films, Ad Astra reveals what it’s truly about slowly and powerfully. The film’s midpoint arrives on Mars, as Roy makes numerous attempts to contact his father under the supervision of SpaceCom. Finally, after withholding his emotions and remaining calm for the entire first half of the film, Roy breaks down and lets his feelings show, telling his dad he’d really love to see him again. It’s this genuine display of emotion that finally elicits a response from Clifford, but Roy is now deemed unsuitable for further space travel because of his rising heart rate and uncontrolled emotions. In effect, SpaceCom was using Roy to get in touch with Clifford, and now that they’ve successfully reached him, they’re sending Roy back to Earth, and shuttling a spacecraft full of nuclear explosives to Neptune to end the surges.
There are shades of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) throughout this section of Ad Astra, as Roy comes to understand that his father may have gone mad and murdered other astronauts on his quest for intelligent life (Gray’s previous film, the extraordinary The Lost City of Z, also dealt with the structure and thematic ideas of Coppola’s film). In an effort to get onboard the spacecraft headed to Neptune, Roy nearly commits the same crimes as his father, albeit unwittingly. On his journey to Neptune, Roy reckons with his actions, both in space and on Earth. Roy’s childhood memories are intercut with the long voyage itself, and we’re treated to a more abstract and fragmented style of filmmaking (including a memorable shot of Roy recoiling when Eve tries to touch him – clearly an instinct he learned from his father).
When Roy finally reaches Neptune and sees his father for the first time in nearly thirty years, he’s able to see the difference between them. Clifford is obsessed with pressing on further, whereas Roy looks forward to returning home and ending his long isolation in space.
The scenes here between Pitt and Jones are so tender. Watch how gently Roy suits up his father as they prepare to leave the Lima Project ruins. Despite Clifford abandoning his family and committing atrocities against his fellow astronauts, Roy still loves him. When Clifford admits that all of his attempts to find intelligent life have failed, Roy offers the film’s most poignant line: “Now we know – we’re all we’ve got.” It’s as powerful a moment as anything in Gray’s stunning filmography, including the gut-wrenching final moments of The Immigrant (2014) and Two Lovers (2009). It’s here that I was the most reminded of my father – it was like watching a strange encounter from my dreams come to life. Why did you leave? Why did everyone tell me you were dead? What have you been searching for all these years?
Ad Astra is astonishingly beautiful and unlike any space film I’ve ever seen – nerve-wrackingly experiential, visually abstract and deeply emotional. Watching the film a second time (in Lincoln Square’s IMAX cinema, which is an experience I recommend for everyone), I was amazed by Gray’s intimate storytelling playing out on such a large canvas. Pitt’s extraordinary performance comes on the heels of his career-best work in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood (which, if there’s justice, will earn Pitt this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar). These two new films, along with decades of masterful performances (The Tree of Life, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Moneyball), cement Pitt’s legacy as one of the best actors alive. Gray’s sincerity as a filmmaker and Pitt’s heartfelt work make Ad Astra one of 2019’s best and most cinematic films.
Review by Jack Kyser, a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.