By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
“The moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy took the stage at Rice University and challenged Americans to look to the stars. His words were full of hope, promising a journey to the next frontier.
“Ad Astra,” the latest film from modern American master James Gray, complicates JFK’s message, questioning whether humankind’s interstellar aspirations are an attempt to reach for the future or escape our limitations. The film grounds this weighty idea in the story of a father, son and the literally astronomical divide between them. It never loses sight of humanity among the stars.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of pioneering astronaut H. Clifford McBride (TommyLeeJones). Roy is a capable astronaut himself, yet despite his own achievements, he still lives in the shadow of a man who pushed humanity into the farthest reaches of space – and his wife and son away in the process.
Father and son are brought into one another’s orbits once again, after mysterious and deadly power surges hitting Earth are traced back to a base on Neptune. Years before, Roy’s father led the base as part of the Lima Project, a research effort that searched for signs of intelligent life. No one has heard from the base –or Roy’s father – since the project went dark 16 years ago.
After a surge results in the death of 40,000 people worldwide, U.S. Space Command informs Roy that his father is still alive and tasks him with traveling to Mars, establishing contact with his father and finding a way to end the surges.
Gray draws on the structure of 1979 war film “Apocalypse Now” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” stretching the Campbellian hero’s journey across the solar system and emphasizing his ongoing obsession with complicated paternal relationships.
Along the way, Gray celebrates the best parts of science fiction: the philosophical questions, near future prognostication and heart-pounding action.
The latter is a welcome addition to a film that is, much like its protagonist, often self-serious and reserved. An early sequence that finds Roy plummeting to Earth after an electrical surge sends him flying off an international space antenna is disorienting and breathless, while a remarkable lunar chase scene is pure pulpy action.
Set in an ambiguous near future, the final frontier of “Ad Astra” is not exactly what JFK had hoped for.
Commercial flights to the moon charge passengers $125 for a blanket and pillow, while the lunar surface is full of tourist traps. Through excellent production design, “Ad Astra” subtly builds a world that feels worth exploring even as it becomes clear that humanity brought its flaws, as well as its aspirations, to outer space.
But at the end of the day, “Ad Astra” is about Roy, his father and the universal need for, and struggle to find, genuine human connection.
Roy’s whole life has been defined by a man he never truly knew. Emotionally distant from his wife and constantly ignoring his emotions, Roy has followed in his father’s footsteps in more ways than he’s comfortable acknowledging.
Beneath the surface of Roy’s reserved exterior – we’re reminded several times his heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute – hides a fountain of anger, resentment and sadness.
And none of that works without Brad Pitt.
Pitt’s quietly soulful performance is the center of “Ad Astra’s” solar system. The sheer magnetism of his presence has a gravitational pull all its own.
With a character this emotionally detached – and this silent – it would be easy to make Roy a blank slate. But Pitt does more with less, conveying wells of repressed emotion with shifts of his head and small eye twitches. One scene in particular – Roy’s attempt to contact his father on Mars – is perhaps three of the best minutes of Pitt’s career.
Gray, forever a fan of the static close-up, often keeps the camera right on Pitt’s face, trusting, rightfully so, that his leading man’s performance will convey what words cannot.
At times, the film doesn’t always trust the audience’s intelligence. A persistent voiceover from Roy often robs scenes of their emotional weight by telling, not showing. And some scenes late in the film become almost comical in how bluntly they hammer home certain themes.
More often than not, though, “Ad Astra” is a smart, expertly crafted sci-fi film, one that can muse on the emotional dangers of masculinity and the way we mythologize our heroes, while providing thrilling action sequences.
“Ad Astra” is a deeply human story on an interstellar scale. It understands that “new hopes for knowledge and peace are there,” but that they’re also here, on Earth, with the people we love, hate and strive to understand.