Seek out the nearest jumbo screen and let filmmaker James Gray, a renegade visionary with a big reach and a knack for sneaky mischief, sweep you off ad astra (that’s “to the stars” in Latin). Getting lost in the space conjured up by the writer-director and the brilliant Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Dunkirk) to screw with your head and throw off your equilibrium is part of the fun. Plus you’ll have Brad Pitt for company, which is good since he’s giving one of his best implosive performances as Major Roy McBride, an astronaut on a mission both profound and personal.
In essence, Ad Astra is a father-son story told on a cosmic scale. It’s not just Roy’s cool-under-pressure reputation that gets him picked for a top-secret mission to Neptune. It’s the fact that his famous-astronaut father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) went missing there three decades ago after heading the Lima Project on a search for intelligent life in the universe. But here’s the thing: Daddy might not be dead. He might, in fact, be somewhere on that remote planet playing Zeus by aiming power surges at Earth in an effort to destroy us. Clifford needs to be stopped and who better to do it than his son, setting up an Apocalypse Now in space as junior attempts to save or destroy his nutjob old man.
It’s a familiar plot, going back to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross keep the action humming, at least in the beginning. An early scene shows Roy working on a space antenna that shoots up from the ground like a limitless beanstalk. Then, boom, one of those power surges sends workers plummeting to their death. Roy barely escapes by parachute. But the danger is established and Gray’s filmmaking is tremendously exciting.
The mission heats up when Roy, ordered by SpaceCom not to call attention to himself, flies commercial to the moon. It’s the near future where people do that kind of thing. And the sight of the moon littered with mall-like shops packs a wicked sting. Traveling by rover across the lunar surface, Roy is attacked by space pirates in a scene bursting with energy and suspense. Ditto a moment of zero-gravity, hand-to-hand combat. Then it’s off to Mars, where Natasha Lyonne shows up barking orders and Roy suits up for his space shot to Neptune, interrupted by the rescue of a space capsule — now occupied by something scary that spoiler etiquette should keep out of reviews.
It’s here that the film leans in on solemnity. In voiceover, Roy expresses emotions we can’t see on his placid surface (“What happened to my dad? What did he find out there? Did it break him? Or was he always broken?”). In flashbacks, Liv Tyler shows up as Roy’s estranged wife, bemoaning his emotional coldness. References abound to other films about the loneliness and alienation that come with space travel, from Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s mindbending Solaris (1972) to Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-winning Gravity (2013) and Christopher Nolan’s hypnotic Interstellar (2014).
At times, these references weigh down the film. But Gray ultimately stamps Ad Astra with a touch that is uniquely his own. In The Lost City of Z, the film Gray made before he ventured into the cosmic void, the exploration into the unknown took place not in space but in the Amazonian jungle. Yet the sense of man against the elements persists. From Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant — all dramas about countries, families, friends and lovers separated by outside forces — Gray holds focus on what makes us human.
He needed an actor of stellar skills to keep us in orbit, which he gets in Pitt, whose portrayal is a marvel of nuanced feeling. Playing a spacebound stoic who refuses to wear his emotions on his sleeve can keep an audience at a distance — see Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man — but Pitt avoids that trap. His scenes with Jones, who can do more with a squint that most actors with pages of dialogue, never push for effect but achieve a wrenching power. The 55-year-old actor is at the top of his game (see his work Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood) and in Ad Astra, he digs deep into a character who finally sees past his duty to the job to his obligation to himself. Yes, you’ve heard this tale before. But Gray tells it with a grand scope and intimate sense of empathy that is nothing less than enthralling.