The Latin words of this space travel epic’s title translate as “to the stars.” And even though the story’s journey only covers the 2.7 billion miles between Earth and Neptune - not quite as far as the stars - it boasts an undeniable magnificence, a grandiosity. This is a massive science fiction film that and features small bursts of action and some dazzling visual effects, but comes across more as quiet and ethereal.
You know there’s something different about it from the moment the Twentieth Century Fox logo appears on the screen because there’s no familiar fanfare accompanying it - just silence, followed by the information that it takes place in the “near future” and that mankind is in the process of “looking to the stars.”
The purpose for doing that is to make contact with whatever else might be out there, and in short order, we meet Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut preparing to visit the International Space Antenna (ISA) that’s orbiting the Earth and sending signals into deep space, and hoping to receive replies. Roy is a second-generation space explorer; though his dad, Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), actually rocketed out there, many years before, visiting distant planets in his search for intelligent life and was last heard from near Neptune, before vanishing.
Both a problem and a question are presented early on. The problem: While Roy is on the ISA, there’s a power surge up there that sets off big explosions and sends him hurtling Earthward until a parachute miraculously lands him safely. The question: Could that power surge as well as others like it all over the planet that are killing thousands of people be emanating from Neptune, under the command of the missing Cliff?
Before that part of the story begins, it’s established that Roy is a sort of lost soul. He rues that his marriage has gone wrong, he can’t shake the fact that Dad abandoned the family all those years ago, and his eyes just don’t show much life while a mechanical voice conducts one of many psychological evaluations on him, and he ponders - via narration - “I survived (the fall). I should feel something.”
But the military doesn’t want him to reflect or brood. They want him to get his act together, shuttle to the moon, fly to Mars, then head for Neptune to find out if Cliff is still alive, if he’s gone rogue and is causing the damage and, if so, to stop him. All of this, of course, is to be done in Top Secret. Anyone thinking, “Hey, that’s kind of similar to the central plot of ‘Apocalypse Now’” could be considered astute.
As that film was a study of what made Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard tick, so too does this one try to get into the head of Major McBride. Much of that is accomplished through Pitt’s constantly churning inner monologue, much of which concerns the ragged remnants of the father-son relationship he was deprived of. His performance here is miles away from yet as effective as the casual and slinky one he gives in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” making this quite a year for him.
But “Ad Astra” goes way beyond just the major’s mind. It goes, with Donald Sutherland’s Colonel Pruitt along as a former pal of Cliff, to the moon (“ad lunam”) and then, with a couple of stops along the way (a tension-filled rescue mission on another ship is well done but would not be missed if excised from the film), to the outer planets where, says the major to himself, he’s not sure if he hopes to find his dad or be free of him.
A lot happens during the voyage, but it never feels like an adventure film, partially due to the way it captures the vastness of space in visuals and blankets everything in the eeriness of Max Richter’s soundtrack music. This is intelligent, cerebral science fiction. It’s not ponderous, like (both versions of) “Solaris” or confounding, like “Arrival. It’s much more accessible, probably because of Pitt’s acting and because we can identify with someone who’s lost and is trying to find some answers.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross; directed by James Gray
With Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga