The title means ‘to the stars’; James Gray’s Ad Astra is probably the director’s best film to date, a sprawling road movie that infolds in deep space, a film that’s huge in scope yet offers tight personal focus. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) recovers quickly from a substantial fall caused by a cosmic blast, and is recruited to travel from the earth to the moon, from the moon to Mars, and then to one further destination, some 21 billion miles from home. What is he searching for? A source of energy that threatens the world as we know it is the familiar answer.
Once he’s overcome such original obstacles as deadly space monkeys and lazer-gun toting pirates, McBride arrives the remnants of previous mission the Lima project, which seems to be the source of the potentially world-ending energy. This is a familiar Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now ‘falling apart as we go up the river’ scenario, simplified but not minimalized by having the Lima under the control of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is also Roy’s father.
Roy’s emotional reaction to universe-changing yet private events is closely monitored, and there’s a specific moral about the nature of emotion; Ad Astra is a thoughtful film in the vein of Interstellar or Solaris, but has the visual pizazz and appeal of Gravity. The support is impressive too, with Donald Sutherland along for the ride, and an amusing one-and-done scene from Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne.
Unfortunately, Ad Astra also has an unsatisfying conclusion; the build up is more effective that the take-away, which isn’t quite as rich or developed as the quest, although that may be part of the point. As in his Oscar-winning turn in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Pitt excels as a man out of time, and out of step with the world around him. But he also exudes a noble professionalism that makes Roy McBride a classic cinematic hero, and the set pieces, particularly an assault on a departing spacecraft, are intense to watch. A technical marvel, Ad Astra is a brooding sci-fi drama that fights to be more than the sum of its carefully wrought parts.