And you thought your father was distant.
In James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” a psychodrama between father and son gets played out across an entire solar system. Gray’s sci-fi drama is a stunner, visually rich and emotionally complex, tethering the biggest ideas to the smallest feelings in a thrilling dance.
The film takes place in a future that’s depressingly familiar to our own — humans have tamed the Moon and colonized Mars, but these outposts look depressingly just like Earth. There’s even a Subway on the Moon. Instead of using space exploration to better the human race, to evolve ourselves into something nobler, the population has expanded and replicated its flawed self elsewhere. “If my dad could see this,” Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) says in voiceover, “He’d want to tear it all down.”
McBride’s father is Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a celebrated astronaut who left on a mission to Neptune when Roy was a teenager and never came back. He was a father that Roy didn’t know at all and knew too well. Roy has grown into the sort of man his father was — strong, respected and emotionally closed off. “I will not rely on anything or anyone,” Roy says at the beginning the film. It’s a credo that’s become a curse.
Cliff’s spaceship was thought to be lost, but when a mysterious electromagnetic pulse hits the earth, scientists trace the source to Neptune, and suspect Cliff may still be alive and continuing his reckless experiments. There are also hints that something may have gone wrong on the mission, and Cliff may have gone insane.
There are echoes of both “2001” and “Apocalypse Now” in Roy’s mission, as he heads from the moon to Mars and beyond to find out what happened to his father. The journey is awe-inspiring, as Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema create vast, humbling spaces, in outer space and on planets, against which the human characters seem puny and fragile.
See “Ad Astra” on the biggest screen you can find for those images, but also for the tight close-ups of Pitt, who conveys the weight of his father’s legacy in the twitch of his eyes. Between this and “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” Pitt has delivered two of the best performances of his career in 2019, and they’re polar opposites. While the stuntman Cliff Booth is all loose-limbed charisma, Roy is tight and controlled, fearful of the rage he’s inherited. Watching Roy face his father’s legacy and slowly start to release himself is very moving.
As austere and inward-looking as “Ad Astra” can be, Gray has also packed the movie with exciting action sequences, including a wild dune buggy chase across the lunar surface and a fight in a disabled spaceship with — well, I won’t spoil it. As psychologically rich as Gray’s films are (“The Lost City of Z," “The Immigrant”), the are also grounded in old-fashioned moviemaking tropes. As far out there as “Ad Astra” goes, he never wants to leave the audience behind.
“Ad Astra” sticks the landing better than Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” in terms of bringing together its themes about our place in the universe and one’s place in his own family. It’s an unforgettable trip.