Ad Astra is one of those movies that probably needs to be seen twice in order to fully absorb its themes. Fortunately, it's something you'd want to see more than once. Director/co-writer James Gray (We Own the Night) has crafted a contemplative film that addresses complex emotional ideas about fathers and sons. Anyone who liked First Man or Annihilation will likely have admiration for his efforts. All three pictures share not only a willingness to explore ambitious concepts, but also the patience to go far beyond surface-level treatment of them.
The story is set in the near future. A series of unexplained power surges is affecting Earth. The U.S. Space Command believes it might be caused by the Lima Project, a quest for intelligent life within the cosmos that was headed up by famed astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). The only problem is that Cliff and crew have been missing and presumed dead for over fifteen years. If their theory is correct, it means that he could be alive. Brad Pitt plays Cliff's son Roy, also an astronaut. SpaceCom sends him to Mars, where he will record a transmission for his father -- believed to be on Neptune -- in the hope that a reply will come.
That is an accurate summation of Ad Astra's plot. Roy does indeed go into space, where several adventures await him, including a run-in with pirates on the moon and some treacherous outer space maneuvers. It is not, however, an accurate description of what the film is about. Despite a couple of expertly crafted action sequences, the movie uses its premise to delve into Roy's feelings about his dad while on the mission. Many times throughout, he delivers monologues, which we hear in voiceover. They reveal his inner insecurities, both about himself and the man who shaped him.
Early on, Roy says he's been trained to compartmentalize. He means professionally, although that unhealthy skill has certainly transferred to his personal life. This is a key aspect of the film. Flashes of memories show that he has locked up his feelings so tightly that his relationship with wife Eve (Liv Tyler) has been impacted. The journey through space forces him to open up those compartments, especially as pertaining to Cliff, the father he has long thought he'd lost.
There's an old saying about how we eventually become our parents. Ad Astra hits on that idea. Cliff was always more work-focused than family-focused. He had a temper sometimes. He made questionable decisions in a work capacity. Roy discovers and confronts the fact that the apple has not fallen far from the tree. (Pay close attention and you'll spot a connection between what both men do in a dire situation.) Is that who he is, or who his dad made him?
Ideas of loss are included, as well. Roy, we quickly sense, has never properly grieved. Now he must, and depending on what he finds during the mission, he might need to a second time. One need not be Sherlock Holmes to surmise that the presence of Tommy Lee Jones in the cast indicates that Cliff is, in fact, out there. Scenes between him and Pitt hold real tension because the long-suppressed feelings of both characters come out – not so much through words as through actions. The payoff to the relationship is exceptionally thoughtful.
Pitt and Jones are superb here. The latter goes a very different route from the usual no-BS quality he brings to his roles (although to say why would be a bit spoilery). The former meaningfully conveys Roy's profound sense of sadness. One of the character's traits is that his pulse never goes above 80, even in life-threatening situations. Pitt makes the emotional disconnectedness that allows that to happen palpable.
Ad Astra is one of the best-looking films in years, thanks to outstanding visual effects and the gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema. Those elements support a story that is, at heart, about what happens when fathers and sons cannot connect, or connect in ways that cause the wrong messages to be sent. There's a great deal to unpack in one sitting. Too few movies can make that claim, which makes this a picture to truly savor.
out of four
Ad Astra is rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.