“To the stars.” That’s the meaning in English of the Latin title Ad Astra, an ambitious and adventurous sci-fi movie from rising director James Gray. Based on the trailers, Ad Astra seems like a voyage into space with the scale and technical achievement of Interstellar but with Brad Pitt guiding the audience through space instead of Matthew McConaughey. While all of that is accurate, Gray’s film is still nothing like what the trailers suggest, and most will be caught off guard by the nuance and symbolism that is prevalent from the very first shot. Ad Astra brings films like Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey to a new generation while also presenting a unique message that differentiates it from any predecessors.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, a straight-laced astronaut who survives a deadly accident caused by an electric surge that kills thousands across the Earth. Since this is the near future, humanity is more reliant on technology and has forayed even further into outer space than ever before, with Mars colonized and the Moon easily accessible to the public. This deadly surge turns out to be possibly caused by McBride’s father, who journeyed on the furthest mankind trip into space and disappeared around Neptune. Now McBride must travel to Mars in order to contact his father and hopefully put a stop to these surges before they permanently damage humanity.
For a movie that takes place mostly in outer space, Ad Astra goes deep inside the soul to a degree that most films are not willing to explore. However, this is not apparent for much of the movie. While the film never lost me, the first act takes its time to get Pitt in the position where the audience will know him as a person front to back. Even if it’s not initially obvious, Gray is dedicated to giving the audience a window into what makes McBride tick, which is why the second and third acts work so magnificently. Gray has a lot to say about the human condition and what is truly important in life: that we should appreciate the people we have around us instead of looking for meaning in idols that distract from the essential aspects of living and loving.
While space, in the end, is simply a vehicle for Pitt to journey further into his own mind and lay all of his values on the table–similar to Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness— that doesn’t stop Gray from fully realizing his setting. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) is some of the best all year, with the feel of each shot changing depending on the planet the scene is set on. Every scene on Mars feels dipped in a pool of rust that reflects the color of rock, while the scenes on the Moon feel metallic in texture. A conversation between Pitt and Ruth Negga (Loving) in a room that changes setting mid-talk is especially gorgeous, with the background becoming as disorienting as it is enchanting.
Speaking of enchanting, Brad Pitt reminds us all why he is one of the largest and most cherished actors ever to work in the business. His part requires minimal dialogue, so most of how we get to know Pitt is through his facial expressions and actions, which are all performed with nuance and precision. At this point, Pitt has played so many classic roles that he can do it in his sleep, and here he disappears into Roy McBride so much that by the 20 minute mark I forgot I was watching an actor. He steps up to the plate on every occasion, and delivers one of the best and most subtle performances of the year.
Director/writer James Gray was largely unknown to me and the world before this point, but now he’s piqued my interest. The themes and ideas he explores in the last act manage to be simultaneously unique and paying tribute to those that came before, which makes the end rewarding in every possible way. The best kind of messages in all of film are those that make the audience look at life differently, and Gray achieves that here by making the viewer want to cherish the people they have in a more active manner. While the first act is slow and some of the various obstacles that McBride faces are far fetched and sudden, the payoff is worth it to a degree that it justifies all that came before. In fact, as I write this, certain events that I questioned are starting to make more sense in the complete context of the film.
Ad Astra is different. It never quite conforms to the typical space action movie stereotypes and when the film finishes it feels as though leaving a dreamlike state. But regardless of the reception, Ad Astra will not leave the minds of anyone who lays eyes on it for a long while. As Pitt goes further into outer space, Gray gets deeper into the psyche, and by the time the audience reaches Neptune he at least has their attention, if not their investment. This film is sure to polarize audiences, for it is a nuanced and literary drama that isn’t focused on pure entertainment, but sticking with Ad Astra will provide one of the most rewarding experiences of the year on an emotional level.
I give Ad Astra an A.