1. There’s a moment at the end of Ad Astra in which it will become crystal clear whether or not this is the type of movie for you, and I am sorry to report that it will require you investing about 100 minutes to get there. There is a man who has traveled an unfathomable distance, a journey that has cost years and billions of dollars and actual human life, ostensibly to save the world. But once he has reached his destination, after all that toil and strife, the actual purpose of his voyage turns out to be perfunctory—besides the point. It’s just a story about him and his daddy. There are people in this world who will happily toss aside all the plot mechanics and astrophysics and space walkin’ and dive fully into the decades of emotional and family dynamics crescendoing at the end of the universe. There are others who will wonder why in the world we just distanced $2.7 billion for a guy to finally have a beer with his dad. Where you sit on this spectrum will largely determine whether Ad Astra is for you, and I suspect the answer ultimately says more about you than it does the film.
2. Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut from a “future near to ours,” who, when we meet him, is somehow surviving an explosion from an international space station by using his preternatural ability to control his heartrate and his breathing, remaining calm in the face of mortal peril. The explosion was caused by a series of solar flares that, it’s learned, may be caused by an experiment years before led by Roy’s father, Griffin (Tommy Lee Jones), who was thought to have died but may be alive and in fact may have sabatoged the mission. Government officials, who fear the flares could end up destroying all life on planet Earth, want Roy to send a message to Griffin’s ship, hopefully persuading him to halt the flares and come back home. Roy, who hasn’t seen his father since he was a teenager, isn’t sure the mission’s going to work … but he’s haunted by his own demons, demons not entirely disconnected from his father.
3. If I’ve made this sound like an exciting space thriller yarn, know that director James Gray is in a much more meditative state here: This is more about the mystery of the soul of man than it is about the mystery of the universe, or even about some big spaceship fights. The universe is the backdrop to the story of a man and his thrwarted issues with his father, and his inability to connect with anyone else in the world because of it. Like many of Gray’s films, Ad Astra is about the depths a man can find within himself, and how far down he can climb in them and hide. Pitt wouldn’t seem like the ideal actor for a part like that—charisma drips off him so effortlessly that it leaves a trail behind him wherever he goes—but he’s impressive at playing a man who doesn’t understand himself but suspect the answer to the riddle that has vexed him his whole life must be in this man who gave him life but whom he never really knew. There’s a reserve here that Pitt draws on that works well for him; it’s a serious performance, but it never feels showy. This is a man who is searching for something, knowing full well he probably won’t find it.
4. Gray provides some thrills on the journey of father to find son, and they are extremely well-crafted, particularly a battle with space pirates on the moon that takes place in a world without both gravity and sound. But to say that this movie has “space pirates on the moon” is accurate but still misleading; Gray gives us these moments to move the story along and make sure we get our adequate Big Outer Space Movie scenes, but it’s obvious his heart isn’t in it. Most of the traditional plot elements, including a vengeful commander played well by Ruth Negga and wizened, cynical sidekick (in a welcome cameo from Donald Sutherland), feel tossed almost as sops to a studio or even an audience to allow Gray to make the movie he wanted to make in the first place. This takes place in outer space, but it could take place anywhere.
5. It still has its moments: Gray is too skilled a filmmaker to leave us wandering and astray. (There’s a surprise involving an animal that is so shocking and surreal that it almost derails the rest of the film.) And in Pitt, he has a solid emotional center that the audience will still follow anywhere, even if it’s to the ends of the solar system just to confront his daddy issues. What happens when we get to the inevitable conclusion is affecting, and it’s a particularly strong performance from Jones, who conveys both madness and vulnerability in his short screen time. When Gray gets to where he finally wants to go, you can see why he insisted on making the journey. But here, it really isn’t about the journey; it’s just about that destination. Whether or not you’re glad you took the trip to get there will be entirely up to you.
Director: James Gray
Writer: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler
Release Date: September 20, 2019
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.