Written by Ethan Gross and James Gray and directed by Gray, “Ad Astra” is a sci-fi drama set in a not-so-far-off future that follows Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, the son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Major Roy McBride is a member of Space Command, a N.A.S.A. inspired international organization that’s investigating a series of increasingly catastrophic power surges that have been rippling throughout the solar system. Early on in the film Roy is nearly killed by one of the surges while attending to some routine maintenance on the colossal space antenna. It’s a thrilling sequence as Roy falls from the heights of the atmosphere and calmly calculates how to survive the scenario, its a sequence of cold logic paired with intense visuals. The rest of the film may be slower over all, but its peppered with sequences that may catch you off-guard, and that’s part of the joy I found with “Ad Astra”. Yes, it’s a heady sci-fi with a huge amount of narration set mostly in space, but it’s also one that injects some compelling action and thrilling sequences throughout the course of the movie.
After surviving the fall Space-Com brings the dutiful former soldier in for what seems like a debriefing for the space antenna explosion, but is in reality a far more somber and urgent preamble. The brass at Space-Com inform Roy that they believe the source of the power surges fracturing the solar system to be originating from Project Lima, the exploratory vessel that his father Clifford captained out to Neptune’s orbit some years ago. It is a mission of utmost secrecy with deadly implications for Humanity if Roy fails to contact the potentially rogue Clifford- if he’s still alive. At every step of the journey Roy must take scheduled Psychological evaluation tests required by Space-Com, which act as strange confessionals that determine if he’s stable enough to journey farther. The mission, clearly a last ditch effort by Space-Com, is to send Roy to the Mars facility that houses the strongest signal generator left operational from the surges- to send a personal message to his father in the hopes of making contact with The Lima Project and her crew.
With this film and the summer’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, this has become an excellent year for Brad Pitt performances. The two characters, Cliff Booth and Roy McBride, could hardly be more different though. While both are equally cool under pressure, Roy is a far more reserved character. He’s clinically cold to others and heavily contemplates his choices, actions, and past while on his journey. Which is why I so appreciated the efficient use of narration from Roy’s perspective, it can be tough to get narration down correctly without it over-staying its welcome, while also avoiding narrative redundancy. Here the narration serves to add depth, paired with Pitt’s minimalist performance, the film benefits from understanding how the character operates, especially as the story becomes intensely personal over time. The film excels at merging grand, expansive, visuals and score with a more intimate rumination on morality, duty, and the meaning of it all (i.e. Life). Which makes perfect sense as the film is almost wholly about duality and it’s many variations sprinkled throughout the runtime; faith and science, hope and despair, to name a few.
While “Ad Astra” may remind you of other films based on structure (Apocalypse Now), or visuals (Interstellar), it does a lot to make itself unique among fellow sci-fi or journey-based tales. The pacing may require a bit of patience at times and the supporting cast may not be used to their full potential (Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and Liv Tyler), however if you’re a fan of a good space travel film or just enjoy similarly cerebral sci-fi like the “Blade Runner” movies, then I highly recommend giving this film a chance.
Final Score: 1 Father, 1000 Daddy issues