The opening of Ad Astra, the newest film from writer/director James Gray, features a brief bit of expository text stating that the film is set in “the near future” during a time when humanity is focused on discovering signs of intelligent life in the universe. The text itself is an intense red-and-orange gradient that suggests fire, a force that can create and destroy, a force that can be the warmth of a fireplace or the torment of Hell. It’s a bit of incongruous ominousness that fades into a serene scene of an astronaut looking down at Earth…and that scene itself gets subverted when you realize that the astronaut is falling.
It’s this kind of intentionally, internally conflicted mood that makes Ad Astra so intriguing, even more so than its lyrical, largamente visuals and quiet meditations on humanity’s quest for meaning. It’s a velvet hammer of a film, landing softly but with intense force and weight. It’s a resonance, a subconscious ripple, a subtle dream of flying and discovery.
The story is narrated by Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) of U. S. Space Command. His fall toward Earth comes when a massive electrical storm hits a towering communications antenna he’s working on. After surviving, he’s enlisted by SpaceCom to track down the source of storms, which threaten all life in the galaxy. They appear to be coming from Neptune, where McBride’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) disappeared 16 years prior during a deep space mission to find and contact extraterrestrial life.
Much of Ad Astra is difficult, nigh impossible to discuss without spoilers. So much of the film is about Roy learning more and more about the true nature of his father’s mission and consequently about his father, a man who’s been lionized by the world and by Roy himself. The more Roy learns, the more he questions his own life and his own decisions, forced to wrestle with the inner demons he’s spent his life suppressing while drifting through the stark, cold, unforgiving beauty of space.
Gray has said in interviews that his film is half 2001: A Space Odyssey and half Apocalypse Now, and that’s a pretty fair assessment of what we have here. Like 2001, it’s an elegiac study of human existence through our fascination with space, but like Apocalypse Now, it’s a very immediate and personal journey, one whose confrontations are as internal as they are external. The easy flow of the narrative is occasionally broken up by intense moments of danger or harrowing moments of self-reflection.
Which is not to say that the film is stressful to experience; far from it. Gray has a keen eye for composition and structure, balancing the grandeur of his interstellar backdrop with a grounded approach to the events itself. That’s matched point-by-point by Max Richter’s gorgeous, minimalist, electro-orchestral score. The script, co-written by Ethan Gross, has a muted, utilitarian, even obligatory feel to it. We’re never told exactly what year the film takes place in, but travel to space has become so common that the trip itself is unremarkable. It’s what happens during that becomes the focus. For all the wonder the audience might get in seeing the landscape of Mars, it’s just another day for the characters. Part of the film even involves a commercial flight to the Moon, which has tourist attractions and fast food restaurants in its landing bay.
The story is laser-focused on Roy. We don’t see anything outside of his perspective, and it’s Brad Pitt’s voice-over that does most of the narrative heavy lifting. Pitt’s performance is intentionally restrained, and his voice-over intentionally dispassionate. He finds his coloration in subtle inflections and facial expressions. We’re told at one point in the film’s opening that Roy’s heart rate has never been recorded at higher than 80 BPM. As the film goes on and Roy starts to question himself more and more, his grasp on stoicism weakens, and it makes his truly emotional moments all the more effective.
With such a strong focus on Pitt’s performance, it makes most of his supporting cast seem superfluous. Characters drift in, do their part, and drift out never to be seen again. This includes a dryly warm Donald Sutherland as an old colleague of Roy’s father, Liv Tyler as Roy’s estranged wife, and Ruth Negga as the director of the Mars base Roy travels to. Everyone adheres to a similarly limited palette, as none of them are truly given of a chance to do much of anything. Negga might be the only exception, who gets a lot of mileage out of her time on screen, projecting a world-weary vulnerability that counterpoints Pitt’s approach perfectly.
But the characters exist all in service to the themes of the film first and foremost. This is a film about ideas primarily, and how those ideas affect the broader scope of humanity. Even Roy’s exploration of his relationship with his father is just a microcosmic version of Gray’s thesis on the nature of exploration and the quest for meaning. There are some very big ideas here filtered through a very personal struggle.
Gray has created a mesmerizing film, a moving and sonorous statement on the human need for purpose. It laces its space-opera optimism with a deep, yet sympathetic melancholy that brings with it an odd degree of comfort and calm. It’s a quiet film with a loud voice, like a distant soprano cutting through the still of twilight. Anchored by Brad Pitt’s dedicated performance, Ad Astra explores the deepest reaches of inner space, which may in fact be our true final frontier.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-