The cosmos contains remnants of every human failure and the potential for all human achievement. And with that knowledge, the stars call to us, as we seek to answer age-old questions. We look up and know, There’s something to learn if we point ourselves in the right direction.
Ad Astra translates the insatiable draw of space into the most heart-racing spectacle of the year. With a synthesis of philosophy, theology, interstellar wonder, Brad Pitt’s deadly gaze, futurist speculation, and the kind of audience-tickling imagination that begets a fast-and-furious car chase on the moon, writer-director James Gray charts a familiar expanse to interrogate mankind’s desire to know everything. The movie is huge, but intimate: The way an Olympic sprinter, hyperventilating and blurred by sweat, might see the face of god after crossing the post-race threshold, Ad Astra stages exhilarating set-pieces that leave us vulnerable to introspection. We catch our breath, and behold.
Twenty-six years after pioneer Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) set off to Neptune to investigate extraterrestrial life, his son, Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), might be the only person capable of reverting global calamity. An electromagnetic pulse, threatening all of Earth’s power, emanates from the same spot where Clifford was in orbit. Believing that the renowned astronaut has gone full Col. Kurtz, scientists enlist Roy to carry out a covert mission to convince his space-mad dad to shut down “the Lima Project.” To suss out the truth, Roy travels to the dark side of the moon, the underground tunnels of Mars, and stretches of starlit emptiness. Whenever he’s not fighting off lunar terrorists, he’s lost in a swirl of his own observations.
Michael Bay could not make 2001: A Space Odyssey, but James Gray, who’s jumped from crime thrillers (Little Odessa, We Own the Night) to pastiche dramas (The Immigrant) and other action-forward quests into the unknown (The Lost City of Z), has the capacity to make Michael Bay’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ad Astra opens with Roy free-falling out of a collapsing space station affected by the pulse, a stunt that stitches together immaculate visual effects and Tom-Cruise-worthy skydiving without showing any of the seams. As Roy recovers, and learns more about the Lima Project’s ill-fated mission, Gray echoes the internal monologuing of Pitt’s Tree of Life characters. Ad Astra is a bleeding-heart story of fathers and sons and responsibility and ambition, left understated by rockets blasting off with nuclear payloads and gas giants swirling in the sky.
Like so many of his movies, Ad Astra is about Brad Pitt’s face. Chiseled, weathered, and adorned with piercing eyes, the 55-year-old actor’s gravitational pull helps him contend with the planetary surroundings. He can run through the piloting procedures of a shuttle or mumble questions like “what is life?” or grapple with adversaries in zero-G, all with the same do-or-die commitment. His deep well of expression, often juxtaposed in close-up with wide vistas of space, is a lens for what Gray is really chasing: the feeling of saving the world, of careening through a planet’s rocky rings to save a fellow officer, of confronting the fears that stretch through our past, present, and future. Even when Pitt’s fogging up a helmet with the last puffs of oxygen, he’s conscious of the endeavor.
The delight of Ad Astra is how Gray brings together the complete spectrum of science fiction. For every existential aside, there’s a splash of pulpy fun that probably cost several million dollars. Jones, through recorded messages beamed back home, makes the emotional core of the movie palpable, but so does every turbulent landing on a new alien surface. Every moment works to entertain and question, delivering sights worthy of the big screen and hours of post-show contemplation. It’s a big swing with profound assertions. Ad Astra heeds the call of the stars, taking us to the edge of the heliosphere to understand what Earth already has to offer us.