Like its rather grand title — it’s Latin for “to the stars” — Ad Astra has ambitions well beyond its science fiction adventure plot line. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has daddy issues — his father, superstar astronaut Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) left his family for an epic space mission decades earlier — and the movie melds that inward conflict with an outward conundrum: Are humans alone in the universe?
The story that weaves these together hones in on Cliff’s mission, thought to have been lost but apparently now somehow responsible for a series of electromagnetic “surges” that disrupt and threaten life on Earth. So Roy begins a long space odyssey to save the solar system and, perhaps, to confront his father.
The movie begins with an image that resemble’s HAL’s “eye” from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, to which Ad Astra owes its core philosophical issue, some of its story structure and — like every grandly conceived, reality-based science fiction film in the past 50 years — its visuals.
Kubrick imagined a mission to Jupiter to contact aliens; for Interstellar, Christopher Nolan sent Matthew McConaughey one planet further, to Saturn, for the same purpose. Now director and co-writer James Gray (The Lost City of Z) leapfrogs two more planets, sending Pitt to Neptune by way of the moon and Mars on another variation on that quest.
Along the way, Gray constructs some spectacular action sequences, including the opening scene, set on a miles-high antenna that juts out beyond the atmosphere — and begins to collapse due to “the surge,” while Roy McBride is in the middle of a space walk. There follows, much later, a dramatic and beautifully staged rover chase on the moon and a creepy visit to a Norwegian spacecraft that issued an SOS and then fell silent.
There’s more action involved in getting Roy on and through the Neptune mission, but I’ll refrain from spoiling any details about those. Suffice it to say that fans of epic, intelligent sci-fi will recognize echoes not only of 2001 and Interstellar, but also Gravity, The Martian, Solaris, Alien, Blade Runner 2049 (the subterranean warrens on Mars owe a lot to that film’s design) and other movies. Gray has learned from the best, and repurposes a complex amalgam of tropes to create something entirely new and his own.
But while Gray more than proves his action and special effects skills, it’s not his chief interest. Pitt’s voiceover narration — sometimes grounded as official reports, sometimes clearly just his private thoughts — reveals the themes most important to the filmmakers (Gray co-wrote the screenplay with pal Ethan Gross). Roy’s personality is bifurcated: On the surface he’s unflappable and effective (there’s much discussion of his low heart rate), but he’s repressing powerful, chaotic emotions. When they emerge, he’s capable of disturbingly amorality. How should we judge this noble but flawed hero?
As the mission to Neptune proceeds and the focus narrows, the visual set pieces become secondary to somber ethical and philosophical concerns, and viewers expecting the big finish of, say, The Martian or Gravity may check out. That would be disappointing, because there’s much to admire in Ad Astra. It may struggle to find a final statement as resonant as its imagery, but it’s also one of the most human-centered science fiction films in many years. (Interstellar and Silent Running come to mind.) It would be a shame if viewers trained by Star Wars were to miss the challenging compassion of Ad Astra.
Grade: A-minus. Rated PG-13. Playing at the AMC River Hills, Carolina Cinemark and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photo: Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox)