When a heady science fiction film comes out, I wait for it, like waiting for the bass drop in a dance tune: the inevitable comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, Ad Astra, the new sci-fi adventure starring Brad Pitt, has shades of that seminal film. Luckily, though, it is no mere pastiche, standing firmly on its own two feet. A gorgeous spectacle that speaks to our brains as much as it does to our adrenaline pumping hearts, Ad Astra is one of the year’s best movies.
In the near future, man colonizes space. Stations are built on the moon and on Mars, but the push into our solar system ends at the angry red planet after a failed mission to Neptune. Years later, strange energy bursts emit from deep space causing deadly surges on earth. In a spectacular opening sequence, one of those surges almost kills the film’s protagonist, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), while performing routine maintenance on a massive communications antenna that scrapes the edge of earth’s atmosphere. The surge causes explosions that send Roy spiraling through the sky, with the whirling visuals, especially on an IMAX screen, thrusting you into every queasy moment of Roy’s unexpected descent to earth.
Roy survives and is immediately called upon for a new mission. The source of the surges has been found; they’re coming from Neptune’s orbit. The failed mission to the far off blue planet may have left survivors, and one of them might be Roy’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). If Clifford has gone all Colonel Kurtz and is actually trying to destroy the earth with the surges, Roy might be the only person able to talk him down.
What follows is a visually sumptuous Heart of Darkness-esque adventure that hops from the moon to Mars to Neptune’s orbit. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and composer Max Richter bring the film’s sights and sounds to life. The colors pop: bright oranges tempered by cool blues inside a spaceship, sickly dusty browns of Mars usurping all other hues; these colors buoy marvelous sights like the earth hovering over the moon’s horizon, or sparks flowing over Roy’s spacesuit while he’s standing under a soon to ignite rocket engine. Meanwhile, Max Richter’s soundtrack stuns. Mysterious, propulsive, immediate, the score suggests the beauty and danger of space all at once.
Director James Gray uses these sights and sounds in service of a thoughtful script, showing the same flair for the enigmatic, the visceral, and the psychological here as he did in his last film, the unjustly overlooked The Lost City of Z. Even more so than that film, Ad Astra is as much a muscular adventure as it is a heady philosophical journey. With tight pacing and editing (the movie is just over the two hour mark) that manages to somehow retain a dreamy tone and feel, the movie punctures its introspectiveness– complete with Terence Malick (or Apocalypse Now) like voice-over conveying Roy’s thoughts and ruminations on his mental and physical isolation– with effective action and suspense.
And while that dreamy tone harkens to the aforementioned 2001, Gray, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ethan Gross, ultimately presents an entirely different film. Where Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece trafficked in the puzzling and mystifying, Ad Astra is a more grounded experience, less bound to the ethereal and more to the tangible. Both films look to the skies for answers, but Ad Astra finds them in ourselves, in humanity, in our capacity to love and in our potential to forgive. And Brad Pitt with his stoic but magnetic presence proves a perfect prism through which to address these themes.
While dark and existential, there’s hope and light in the end, but not in ways you might expect: Looking directly into the void, the movie dares to find beauty in it. What we’re left with is bracingly honest–If you have a strained relationship with your dad, this might hit a little too close to home–yet emotional picture, that never dips into mawkishness. Ad Astra is a perfect balancing act that, indeed, takes you to the stars.