Director James Gray (The Immigrant), writing with Ethan Gross (Fringe), bring their ambitious story, Ad Astra, to the screen in vivid, galactic style. Using stunning visuals, an exceptional score, and a story that never gets larger than itself, they succeed on a grand scale—although the tale might not be to everyone’s taste.
Thirty years ago, the father of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) disappeared on a space mission to the edge of our solar system. Now, Roy is enlisted to follow in his father’s footsteps as an unknown force emanating from the coordinates of his father’s missing spacecraft threatens the existence of the human race. As he gets deeper into the mystery, Roy begins to wonder if he ever really knew his father, and then questions if he ever really knew himself.
There are distinct advantages to the director also being the writer, not the least of which is to know exactly the story they want to tell. This is the case with Gray. Even though the film can be hard to follow because some things are never fully explained and others are left open to the interpretation of the viewer, it never deviates from its consistent path. The combination of being part science fiction, part mystery, and part personal growth will not fit everyone’s tastes. But for those who enjoy more thought-provoking classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and THX-1138, there is a lot to see and enjoy.
Brad Pitt gives a wonderful performance in the lead—perhaps one of the more memorable of his career. The other members of the cast are primarily background characters, although the few scenes that feature Tommy Lee Jones as Roy’s father Clifford McBride demonstrate what a fine choice he is for the role.
The cinematography is exceptional, if sometimes dizzying. Some moments and angles are almost surreal, but there isn’t a time that the audience will not feel like they are there, even in freefall. A surprisingly adept score couples with this feeling to give filmgoers a real sense of presence. Of particular note are the spacescapes. Intensely immersive and real, they demonstrate nearly perfectly both the vastness and beauty of our solar system.
With its open details and an ending that seems destined to be controversial, Ad Astra may not be a film that is enjoyed by general audiences expecting an action thriller. However, that shouldn’t deter those interested in the genre because it compares wonderfully to equally ambitious predecessors. The appeal may not be universal, but Ad Astra is certainly a bright star whose magnitude resonates.