Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is tired of Earth. Specifically, he’s tired of the human beings who swarm over its surface – and who have just begun to colonize other worlds in the near-future setting of writer-director James Gray’s exquisitely forlorn space epic Ad Astra. Roy is the sort of person who seems to have been born for the grueling isolation of space travel, and not simply because his father, Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones), was himself an astronaut renowned for his interplanetary trailblazing. Outwardly evincing a preternatural, Armstrong-like composure – his heart rate has famously never cracked 90 bpm – Roy conceals a relentless itch to remove himself from the chattering, devouring mass of humanity. Like Sol Nazerman in The Pawnbroker (1964), he has escaped his emotions and longs to be safe within himself. One can also discern in Roy an exhausted, more melancholic form of the misanthropy expressed by Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007): “I hate most people … I look at most people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money I can get away from everyone.”
For Roy, the means to such self-exile is not wealth, but the United States space program. The ostensible thrill of going higher, further, and faster into the unforgiving void is almost incidental to him; the serene freedom of being a man alone is what truly compels him to slip the surly bonds of Earth. This is perhaps why Roy accepts any off-world mission offered to him, even a gig as unglamorous as performing repairs on the low-orbit International Space Antennae. (Bear in mind, humankind has reached the outer edges of the solar system in the not-too-distant future of the film; among the one-percent, lunar tourism has already lost the sparkle of the new.) It’s during this routine maintenance mission that Earth is bathed in a burst of cosmic radiation that fries all unshielded electrical equipment, including the space antennae itself. The resulting cascade of catastrophic system failures culminates in a series of explosions, sending Roy hurtling earthward in what amounts to the mother of all HALO jumps.
Roy narrowly survives, and after recovering he is summoned to a top secret meeting at U.S. Space Command, the apparent fictional successor to NASA. There he learns that the still-ongoing cosmic ray bursts are originating from Neptune’s orbit, where the presumed-lost Lima Project was once engaged in the search for intelligent life beyond the solar system. Said project was helmed by Cliff McBride, as it happens, and Roy’s superiors believe that his father may not only be alive, but also responsible for the escalating, potentially civilization-obliterating pulses of radiation. Recruited as much for his familial connection as for his cool professionalism, Roy is ordered to journey from Earth to the moon, and then from the moon to Mars, where he will send a message to his father via a secure communications laser on the far side of the Red Planet. The revelation that his father might still be alive some 16 years after the man’s final transmission seems to discombobulate Roy more than the prospect of a looming apocalypse. He grew up longing to emulate his dad’s pioneering achievements in space exploration, even as he simultaneously sympathized with and resented the man’s complete disinterest in an earthbound existence. (One wonders why Cliff bothered to start a family at all; Roy, for his part, has one failed marriage and no children to his name.)
Gray has long been a director fascinated with the convoluted internal logic that motivates (and rationalizes) human behavior, but it’s only recently – with Lost City of Z (2016), his masterful, still-underrated treatise on success, failure, and obsession – that the filmmaker has examined it on a more epic scale. In earlier works such as We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), and The Immigrant (2013), the director exhibited an affinity for a burnished, sharp-eyed, and yet oddly reserved stripe of cinematic storytelling, wherein well-worn dramatic scenarios are gussied up with handsome visuals and muscular performances. Prior to Lost City of Z, Gray’s features suggested an auteur who was playing it relatively safe, fashioning solemn, relatively small-scale entries across multiple genres, films that never quite managed to coalesce into anything revelatory. With two bona fide adventure epics now under his belt, it’s clear that Gray has found his virtuosic groove: Big Films about Big Ideas, judiciously circumscribed by the filmmaker’s resolve to prioritize human ambitions, desires, and frailties over mere spectacle for spectacle’s sake.
This isn’t to say that Ad Astra is short on spectacle. Consistent with the past decade’s run of high-profile space thrillers – including Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), and First Man (2018) – as well as the influential “NASA procedurals” Countdown (1967) and Marooned (1969), Gray’s film is absorbed with the process by which humans are hurled across thousands, millions, or billions of miles of airless nothingness. The leapfrogging way that Roy travels through a succession of lunar and Martian weigh stations – and then eventually rockets on to Neptune for a rendezvous with Project Lima – allows for a succession of stunning set pieces that emphasize varying aspects of the film’s neo-colonial sci-fi setting. In a handful of scenes, the screenplay by Gray and Ethan Gross veers into the kind of expositional sci-fi gibberish one expects of a loud, dumb action film. (Much is vaguely made of a malfunctioning antimatter contraption aboard the Project Lima research station.) On the whole, however, Ad Astra respects the audience’s intelligence by showing rather than telling. The film’s hazards – a potentially lethal, spin-induced blackout; an onrushing storm of rock and ice fragments; a landing rocket tilting perilously as it descends through fire – are typically stark and terrifying.
Meanwhile, the creeping banality of space travel is established with wry details such as the $125 upcharge for a blanket on Virgin Atlantic’s earth-to-moon shuttle, or the Subway and Applebee’s franchises that have sprung up in the U.S.’s primary lunar base. (As in Blade Runner  and Total Recall  such product placements rather cunningly work double-duty as tart satire.) This sort of vulgar commercial encroachment into the celestial spheres is one side of the human ugliness that Roy would just as soon leave behind. The other is the resource-hungry squabbling of the planet’s nation-states, whose conflicts have likewise migrated beyond Earth’s atmosphere. These struggles are embodied in an early, rattling scene in which pirates on lunar rovers ambush Roy and his military escort on their way to a launch platform on the moon’s dark side. Captured primarily from Roy’s limited sensory perspective – the sounds of the attack are muted save for the vibrations of colliding rock and metal – this sequence further underlines how little changes, even as technology steamrolls forward. Cheeseburgers and violence: We always seem to do those well.
This might make Ad Astra sound like a slicker, more acerbic film that it proves to be: The film’s methods and mood are much closer to Tarkovsky than Verhoeven. Truthfully, Gray’s feature rather terrifically splits the difference between the high-momentum survival thrills of Gravity and Interstellar and artier, more ruminative sci-fi touchstones: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972) The Fountain (2006), Melancholia (2011), Arrival (2016), and Claire Denis’ recent, slippery contribution to that sub-genre, High Life. (There’s also a jarring sequence that dips into the B-movie sci-fi horror of Link , Sunshine , and Life ; the scene’s sheer left-field strangeness helps to dampen its midnight-movie cheese.)
As in Lost City of Z, the director employs striking colors and textures, a relentless soundscape, and occasional forays into a more hallucinatory sensibility to invigorate familiar genre situations and locales. Inscrutable surrealism isn’t a part of Gray’s repertoire, but much like Denis Villeneuve, he has an aptitude for using the latent uncanniness of his sci-fi setting to evoke an atmosphere that is both intoxicating and densely layered. With its nuclear-orange lighting and mod furnishings, a pivotal scene between Pitt’s astronaut and a shrewd Mars administrator (an underused Ruth Negga) feels like a direct visual quote of Solaris. However, the grimy production design glimpsed elsewhere in that same Martian station – which resembles a half-deserted, mothballed Soviet factory, complete with stray dogs – adds further intricacy to the film’s setting and subtext.
The Villeneuve comparison is also suggested by Roy’s automated psychological evaluations, in which the astronaut attests to his mental fitness for space travel. Through repetition, Roy’s flatly-delivered declarations eventually begin to recall K’s eerie “baseline tests” in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), with their ominous, numbing Pale Fire poetry. (“A system of cells interlinked within cells interlinked within cells...”) Like K, Roy wants to establish his usefulness to the authorities that control him, but gradually his certainty in both his normally rock-steady abilities and in the U.S. Space Command’s intentions begins to crumble. Much as his father seems to exist in a state of quantum uncertainty – dead and alive, beckoning and spurning, noble scientist and delusional monster – Roy is vexingly uncertain of his own feelings. His consuming desire to see his father again wrestles with his fear of what he might find at the edge of the solar system – a corpse, a madman, or a mirror that reveals his own fundamental unsuitability for human society.
As he has settled comfortably into scruffy-hunky middle age, it’s become increasingly apparent that Pitt’s best performances have often been as a supporting character actor rather a leading man. His laconic, winning turn as faded stuntman Cliff Booth in this summer’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood exemplifies this formula, but Ad Astra illustrates that mature-period Pitt can still deliver fantastically when at the center of the right film. Indeed, Ad Astra is nearly a one-man show. Through most of the film, Jones remains a distant, Ahab-like specter, giving wild-eyed speeches in snowy footage that Roy watches disconsolately on phones and tablets. Poor Liv Tyler, as Roy’s ex-wife Eve, is likewise an ephemeral presence, confined to fragmented memories and pleading video messages. (This, despite Tyler receiving second billing!) Other characters, like Negga’s loungewear-clad official or Donald Sutherland’s veteran astronaut, seem to exit the film as quickly as they enter it.
The overall narrative of Ad Astra and Roy’s character arc are one and the same, and Pitt is accordingly front and center in every scene. He brings a smooth yet remotely troubled self-possession to the role – which has more than a passing resemblance to Ryan Gosling’s resolutely walled-off Neil Armstrong in the aforementioned First Man. Roy is less of impenetrable enigma than the real-world Apollo 11 commander, but his pathos is also more complex and conflicted. While he can be inhumanly unruffled and quick-witted during an emergency, when it comes to his father and Project Lima, he seems utterly uncertain as to what he’s going to do or say. Despite his cynicism, Roy longs for a connection, and that urge is echoed in the Hail-Mary hopefulness of Lima’s SETI-like ambitions.
Notwithstanding the simmering presence of this subplot, Ad Astra never makes the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence the main attraction; meaning there’s no risk of the inevitable dramatic letdown or glib science-vs-faith didacticism that characterizes, say, Contact (1997). Instead, Gray urgently yet gracefully emphasizes the more abstracted longing for escape that undergirds all tales that lead off the edge of the map. More than Lost City of Z’s consumed explorer Percy Fawcett, Roy recalls the quixotic blend of frustration and idealism exhibited by French sailor Bernard Moitessier. In 1968, while in the lead during the final leg of a solo round-the-world yacht race, Moitessier stunned the globe by abruptly leaving the competition and continuing on for another full hemisphere, eventually making landfill in Tahiti. By way of explaining himself, the Frenchman sent a message to a passing ship via slingshot: I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.