Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
2 hours 3 minutes
Brad Pitt gives a career-best performance as an unflappable astronaut pushing the boundaries of outer space in Ad Astra, a ruminative and rich examination of a seemingly impenetrable man.
Those expecting a science-fiction adventure like Apollo 13 or Armageddon may want to recalibrate their expectations. This film’s philosophical and psychological streak puts it more in the company of films like Solaris and last year’s First Man. It asks us to consider the mindset of a person who willingly risks his life to push forward into dark void of space and also to consider how that unimaginable journey would inevitably change him.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, who, in a similar fashion to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, tells the audience in opening voiceover narration, “I always wanted to be an astronaut.” He admits the biggest reason for this is his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), also a highly revered astronaut before he disappeared on his final mission called The Lima Project.
After a harrowing early scene that showcases Roy’s expertise and resiliency, he’s brought in for a new mission to investigate cosmic pulses near Neptune that are causing worldwide electronics malfunctions on Earth in a catastrophe nicknamed “The Surge.”
As McBride travels from the Moon to Mars and ultimately to Neptune, we’re reminded each step of the way just how harsh and unforgiving the environment around him is. Once we leave the comparatively bright setting of Earth, McBride’s surroundings seem to only get more bleak and dangerous from there on out. At one point, he has to wade through pitch-black waters in order to catch a shuttle with only a precarious rope as his guide. In case he needed a reminder that space is not designed around comfort, the stewardess on his trip to the Moon nonchalantly relays that the cost for an in-flight blanket would be $125.
Director James Gray, who also examined the psyche of a fearless pioneer with his last film The Lost City of Z, fashions his brand of stoic storytelling onto a fittingly stoic protagonist. As a profoundly withdrawn man whose cool exterior slowly chips away, Pitt is excellent at conveying the subtle emotional changes within his character. With the film’s themes concerning fatherhood and parental neglect along with Pitt’s pensive voiceover throughout, I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, where Pitt played the father figure instead of the son as he does here. While I would argue Gray doesn’t quite have the writing chops to mirror the hushed narration of Malick’s best work, the technique works more often than it doesn’t.
With cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also shot Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, Gray paints a portrait of outer space marked by its stark isolation with touches of beauty along the way.
His film is an anxious one, where stress and worry permeate through both the most battle-tested veterans and the most air-tight capsules alike. It can be a dispiriting and depressing ride at times, though not as much as High Life from earlier this year, but Gray leaves the door open for hope and reconciliation to carry his audience to the end.
Ad Astra reminds us that regardless of the traveler, the journey is often more important than the destination.
Coming to theaters this weekend
Abominable, starring Chloe Bennet and Sarah Paulson, is an animated adventure tale about a magical Yeti who looks like reconnect with its family on the top of Mount Everest.
Judy, starring Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock, is an Oscar-aspiring biopic centered around the life and career of American icon Judy Garland, focusing on a run of sell-out concerts she put on in 1969 London.
Opening at Cinema Center is Ay Mariposa, a documentary set along the US-Mexico border wall that follows a protester, a migrant worker, and a symbolic butterfly as they adjust to the changing political climate.