Ad Astra, the Brad Pitt-starring and James Gray-directed film, finds a beautiful balance between emotion and exploration. It’s a trip to the stars, presenting a chance to reconnect a broken familial thread come into razor-sharp focus in one of the year’s best films.
Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, whose father, famed astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), entered deep space in search of a new life beyond our own and ended up disappearing near Neptune. Time has flowed by, and now a threatening power surge may be coming from that same location. The son is brought in to potentially communicate with the father, and so begins the journey.
The genuine feeling of loneliness and the pain of regret cover every surface of the film, the urge to push on despite the momentum is against you. It’s something James Gray portrays with defiant realism both here and in The Lost City of Z (2016), the yearning to carry on when the mind and body prove a taxing limit.
The themes of the movie are intimate but done on such a scale where the footprints of the father and the sins of the father reflect back upon the son as he attempts to step in those same footprints to uncover the truth. To take that idea and show the immense amount of effort to go boldly forth gives Ad Astra this immense sense of exploration as it speaks to its viewer on different levels, depending on your own baggage coming into it.
A son looking to reclaim memories lost from an absent father, reflecting back on his life and what it potentially means for his own personal failures, what it means to his trust in the mission and those who sent him: it’s in these aspects where we find the most emotional turmoil inside McBride. It’s in his mental state throughout the film and through his narration during key points as he struggles to find the truth inside himself where these become so central to the movie’s message.
This makes Brad Pitt’s performance a central linchpin to making Ad Astra work: and he brings everything needed to make Ad Astra work. It’s not a broad performance, most of its greatness deep inside the subtlety, what’s not being said. Pitt’s eyes are an essential window into McBride’s psyche, the feature that drives the most attention when locked inside a helmet or when his composure requires calm and only his face and especially his eyes show what’s really going on inside.
Ad Astra isn’t only about the search for acceptance and reconciliation in the face of insurmountable odds, as heavy a topic as it is; there are small moments of showing the commercialization of space and its negative impact compared to the noble effort of space exploration; there are moments of deprived rage that come when least expected; and there’s the isolation of never seeing more than the cold confines of a bunker system, where Earth is the most alien of ideas and is treated as though it’s the thing to strive for, rather than farther out into the galaxy.
It’s these little things that help buoy the larger ideas, to fill in the world and the galaxy the film takes us on a journey through.
James Gray’s direction is brimming with powerful and at times haunting imagery of not only absolute danger lurking at every corner but delivering the sparse and cold silence and empty void that is beyond contact. It helps solidify father and son through the bond of inescapable nothingness, tying visual to theme in a powerful way. But there are also moments of dazzling excitement, like a particular sequence on the Moon, that does showcase the heady movie’s moments of intensity.
Ad Astra is an expensive movie for such an intimate, thoughtful story. It’s worth every penny, delivering something so rich in its need to say something about family, about exploration, and about going too far beyond one’s limits. There’s also a large beacon of hope in the film that James Gray adds with an apostrophe, marking the film as a reminder to love what you may take for granted, and to strive to find peace inside yourself when it can’t always be found all the way across the galaxy.