- 20th Century Fox
What kind of movie is Ad Astra, anyway? On some level, worrying about labels shouldn't be the job of film criticism; it's the marketing department's problem if they've got something on their hands that might be a tough sell if it's neither fish nor fowl. But director James Gray's heady mix of science-fiction thriller, psychological drama and social commentary feels almost genetically engineered so that it's hard to figure out what he's trying to do. It's like a smart, talented director who has spent 20 years getting not nearly the recognition he deserves decided to go, "OK, fine: Here's what I think an attempt at a 'commercial' movie looks like."
The premise provides an easy hook, as Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a career astronaut, is recruited as part of a highly-classified mission. A strange energy surge originating from space has caused disruption around the planet, and Space Command believes that the surge originated from a spacecraft lost on the edge of the solar system decades earlier while on a mission to discover extraterrestrial life. And the commander of that lost mission was Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy's father, who might actually still be alive and threatening life on earth with bursts of anti-matter. So Roy is tasked with heading from earth to the moon, from the moon to Mars, and potentially beyond, to end the threat of a once-great man.
If you're getting a Heart of Darkness vibe from that synopsis, it's no accident. Gray loads Ad Astra with Roy's voice-over internal monologue as he wrestles with his feelings about his long-absent father, making it feel a lot like A Papa-less Now. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) provides a foundation of stunning images, both in the majesty of space and in claustrophobic spacecraft, offering the closest thing imaginable to a genre spin on a late-period Terrence Malick film. Pitt's performance is profoundly restrained as he plays a man who deliberately shuts himself off from his feelings—exemplified in fragmented flashbacks to a failed marriage (to Liv Tyler, still playing romantic interest to guys who go out into space to save the world, 20 years after Armageddon)—but if a movie is going to spend a lot of time fixed on an impassive human face, it might as well be Brad Pitt's.
Yet this is also a narrative that peppers its meditations on emotional and physical isolation with showy set pieces and fascinating visions of its "near future." The first surge sends Pitt and several co-workers on a massive stratosphere-piercing space antenna tumbling toward earth; a ride through the uncontrolled frontier outside a lunar base finds Pitt and his military escort attacked by—and I can't possibly even think of this concept without smiling—moon pirates. Gray repeatedly emphasizes a culture of trying to keep people calm and placid, from "comfort rooms" full of soothing nature scenes to the mandated mood stabilizers distributed to flight crews. And there's a wry dark humor to the notion that humanity's great achievement of establishing a permanent base on the moon involves making it as comfortably earth-like as possible, including tourist photo-ops and an Applebee's.
Then, as Roy draws closer and closer to a possible reunion with his father, Gray hones in on a notion that should feel timely and relevant: that the ideas and philosophies people dedicate themselves to can ultimately distance them from other human beings. Yet Ad Astra struggles to give that thesis the emotional punch Gray clearly wants to deliver, as the movie proves more successful at giving you stuff to look at and think about than at giving you stuff to feel. There's so much going on here, on a weird variety of tonal levels—I don't dare spoil the most startlingly unexpected focal point of one action beat—that some of it is bound to fall short. Ad Astra is gorgeous, ethereal, occasionally wise, sometimes overly literal, sometimes flat-out silly. You just don't get too many haunting big-budget odysseys about the essence of what it means to be human that also include moon pirates.