I’ve long believed that humanity’s thirst for the unknown was a thinly veiled search for God. We’re constantly looking, probing for proof of something more, for evidence that we’re not alone in the universe. Our quest to discover intelligence life elsewhere is but a people desperate for meaning, for answers to the greatest questions we have ever known. It’s why scientists, not Baptists, are craning their necks, gazing into the heavens. Many of the religiously affiliated already have an answer, a belief system they rely on in moments of doubt and existential crises. The agnostic and scientifically altruistic among us are still looking for those answers, and James Gray’s science fiction opus Ad Astra is about a father and son grappling with such thoughts.
Set in the near future, U.S. Space Command vet and son of a hero Roy McBride is called up to carry out a classified mission following a power surge felt throughout our solar system. Roy is a man coming to terms with his own mistakes, taking stock of our sins as a species, and struggling to break free of the toxic bonds that were passed down to him by his distant father. He’s an emotionally constipated echo of that repressed male id of today. He’s been taught to be tough and never show any weakness, for weakness and vulnerability can sabotage your mission in life, whatever that may be. This has been internalized to the point of a heart rate that doesn’t rise above 80 BPM, life or death stakes be damned, and externalized within Space Command, where any emotional investment deemed “unhealthy” is grounds for expulsion. Earlier this summer, Pitt’s easygoing charisma was a highlight of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. As McBride, he’s eschewed movie star charm for an inwardly complicated, outwardly quiet performance. It’s the best of him since Moneyball in 2011. Roy’s search for his father (Tommy Lee Jones) is not unlike man’s search for God. He is a lost soul, recently separated from his wife (Liv Tyler), longing to find his creator, the man in the sky he doesn’t know anymore. Pitt has the unenviable task of making a character as opaque as Roy interesting and he succeeds, able to convey everything inside with a simple twitch or clench.
Joining him briefly are Donald Sutherland, as an old friend of Dad’s (commence Space Cowboys jokes), and Ruth Negga as a woman of Mars. As Space Command pioneer Clifford McBride, Jones is perfectly cast as an old man fraying at the edges of our solar system. He’s desperate to prove we’re not alone in the universe, that someone will call us back from the other side of the cosmos. His search for life, for God, for whatever may be out there has estranged him from his family and his former life on Earth. James Gray, for his part, doesn’t trust his audience well enough when trying to get such heady ideas across. He frequently employs voice-over narration that is by turns poetic and deeply unnecessary. Roy’s inner thoughts often make obvious the film’s intriguing subtext, reminding one of Harrison Ford’s ill-begotten narration in the original theatrical cut of 1982’s Blade Runner. Surprisingly, Gray’s command of sound and fury are put to spellbinding use during the film’s infrequent set pieces. A lunar-buggy chase on the moon, with Pitt and others trying to outrun pirates bent on theft of resources, is one of the most thrilling action sequences I’ve seen all year. Another on board a mayday vessel includes one of the more surprising images of the year, a threat of earthly proportions that further proves what Roy laments earlier in the film: “we’re world-eaters.” Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema uses light and color differently here than in Interstellar. A nail-biting scene among Neptune’s outer ring is a sight to behold, the contrast between a blue asteroid belt and the darkness beyond rendering space an eerie and lonely place.
And that’s probably the best way to describe Ad Astra, an eerie and lonely film that thrills more often than it wills us to examine ourselves or the world around us, much less move us. Gray’s meditative style is complemented by a nicely understated if unmemorable score by Max Richter (don’t go in expecting a masterpiece like On the Nature of Daylight), and Pitt is at his most subtle and most dedicated. He’s so good you suddenly recall an interview of his with GQ wherein he spoke of an all-powerful, war-paint father back home. This is clearly a personal film for both he and director, and the result is Gray’s best film yet, a big-studio movie that dares to ask questions most of them won’t and can’t. That doesn’t make it one of the best of the year, but that does make it one of the more interesting.