James Gray inserts action, but his film is not such. He wedges suspense, but even in the galaxy’s gravity our feet remain affixed. And the central mystery? That’s solved within the bounds of two planets. No. The genius of James Gray’s Ad Astra is not in the cosmic scale it succeeds on, but its conflicting remote-intimacy silently combusting like a distant star.
Brad Pitt explodes, quietly. In the not too distant future, he plays Roy McBride, son of the legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy’s father left long ago as part of the Lima Project, an expedition to Neptune to find intelligent life in the outer reaches of space. Roy, now an adult, raised under the auspices of his father’s demise as a hero of science, works as an astronaut himself. Calm under pressure, his BPM never rises above 80—and he passes every psychological baseline test with ease—even when he’s free falling from the stratosphere down to earth. His fall from those starry heights happens when an energy surge disables and nearly destroys the space station he lives on. The catastrophic charges are traced back to Neptune, possibly precipitated by his father—who may very well be alive. Roy is then ordered to Mars to transmit a personal message to Clifford, to assuage his dad’s anger and find him.
Nevertheless, on his quest he’s beset by the inequities of humanity. While space travel is prevalent, the once wondrous expedition has been reduced to a tourist trap. Moon bases filled with fast-food restaurants, pillows and blankets charged for $125, and the sanctum of the suitup room reduced to old men sitting in the spacious leather chairs once reserved for the young fit explorers from NASA. The same precarious fight for resources still impedes, even on these new worlds: Mars and the Moon. Space pirates enact their greed in literal drive-bys: where Neil Armstrong once lept, characters are involved in high-stakes car chases—except the participants ride in rovers past cavernous white and grey craters—and the borders of the rocky satellite are in dispute between countries in a larger war.
Over the course of Ad Astra‘s 122 minutes, Roy travels deeper and deeper into space. And like Gray’s previous film: The Lost City of Z, the greater the remoteness the harsher the psychological change. In some sense, Roy even mirrors K in Blade Runner 2049. It’s telling that we never find out the larger structure of his world: the politics, governments, and people. Like the truth, they’re kept at a distance. And the closer he comes to the truth and to his origin: his father, the less control he retains over his emotions. He moves from passing baseline tests to failing. His heart rate rises, and his emotions burst to the forefront. Much as he attempts to hide the weight he bears from the likes of Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) and Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), brief partners, he rapidly comes undone. He quickly succumbs to regret.
Here, Brad Pitt crafts a career-defining performance. His best characters typically display a range of wit, charm, and volatility. But in Ad Astra, he’s devoid of the tools that’s made him a star, casting them aside for a nuance unseen in his career. Usually spry, here he’s deliberate and haggard. His character holds women at a distance. In fact, Roy looks through them. Taught to do such by his father: a violent and toxic man, his repressed emotions aren’t so much a show of strength—but a weakness. Pitt navigates these sensations with heavy control and light calibrations, never veering to the melodrama of the story surrounding him. And within his blue eyes and deep lines, captured in startling relief by Gray’s intimate camera, charts the galaxies of pent-up trauma hidden deep within the recesses of his character’s psyche.
Meant to be seen on the largest screen possible, Gray’s film soars on a technical level and in its crafts. Movies set in space usually employ the Moon, Mars, Venus, Saturn, even Jupiter as settings. But not since Paul W.S. Anderson’s Sci-Fi horror Event Horizon has a narrative occurred around Neptune. In fact, in our history only Voyager 2 has explored the distant planet. In our solar system, you can’t find a more alien and mysterious sphere. Those components instill a sense of awe when the sumptuous visuals of the big blue heavenly body fills the screen. Once more, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema puts these vast celestial spaces in their scale by the opposing closeness he captures the humans and ships traveling through the never-ending sea of stars. Max Ritcher’s plaintive stringed score gives the viewer hope for reasons they can not fathom, while marking the sorrowful time. And the symbolism at the heart of Ad Astra: rebirth and God, never block the film’s humanistic veins.
While Gray does indeed craft a new chapter in the book of sad white guys in space with family issues: Interstellar and First Man, this iteration on the cliche rises above mid-flight. Ad Astra isn’t solely about a man troubled by tragedy or loss, or even God. It’s how toxic masculinity confronts grief like a distant ping among the stars, lost in the echos of darkness, slowed by the toxic gravity around them, reaching loved ones with the reverberating speed of a prehistoric light that long ago died but is only visible to us now. Gray’s Ad Astra, as a reflection upon loss and masculinity is as illuminating as the sun, personal in its careful inspection, and a repressed masterpiece.