Space, the final frontier (or at least another one), has always served as a vast, blank and mysterious terrain upon which storytellers can splay the unlimited possibilities of their existential, metaphysical and symbolic journeys. In James Gray’s sprawling space epic “Ad Astra,” the journey is a deeply intimate and personal one, a metaphorical voyage writ large. A man searches for his father, emotionally, by literally searching for his father, physically. His goal? To “find him or finally be free of him.”
Gray has imagined an expansive near future full of “hope and conflict” where humans have gone searching beyond Earth for resources, answers and life. Our hero, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a calm, collected astronaut whose resting heart rate has famously never risen above 80, is tasked with a journey beyond Earth to find life, in a searing, intimate sense. His father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a brilliant scientist and astronaut, has been on a journey to Neptune for the past 29 years on a research mission called the “Lima Project.” When a series of electrical surges originating from Neptune blasts Earth, Roy is called upon to finally go in search of his father, in hopes his personal connection might appeal to the man he’s long-since believed dead.
The universe of “Ad Astra” is rich with detail, both uncanny and banal. Commercial space flights to the moon are filled with the same kind of price gouging and low-brow convenience culture as our airports are, naturally. But Gray can pivot swiftly from that to a thrillingly action-packed moon pirate rover chase indebted heavily to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and then, to a sequence of bloody space horror inspired by the likes of “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Small and meaningful details are embroidered into the tapestry of “Ad Astra” that make this world what it is: wry jokes, cameos, little bits of the potential space culture of a not-too-distant future. We long to spend more time in the eerie, beautiful spaces. An all-too-brief stop on Mars is nothing short of intoxicating, anchored by Kevin Thompson’s production design and Ruth Negga’s hypnotic eyes. Poured concrete walls cast in red light, “comfort rooms” with waves and flowers and birds projected onto the walls like some kind of abstract art installation. Mars is Roy’s last stop, the farthest outpost where he can send his plaintive message to dad, and the one place where he finally loses his cool.
With story so huge yet intimate, and earnestly sincere, “Ad Astra” is remarkably composed. Gray keeps a steady hand on the controls, capably landing this spacecraft.
But the film is not without flaw. The third act gets becomes sludgy, bogged down in overly explanatory narration. Liv Tyler is resigned to a thankless wife role that requires almost no screen time and only illustrates Roy’s inability to form meaningful relationships.
“Ad Astra” is the story of a man’s journey to the outermost reaches of the universe and the innermost depths of himself. It’s a trip he has to make in isolation, yet one of the most indelible images in a film of indelible images is of an outstretched hand. Can Roy take it and allow himself to be helped, to be held? Despite the grandeur and glory of such a solo mission, sometimes it’s better to surrender to the whims of the world.
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