Major Roy McBride is good at compartmentalising. Becoming orphaned (or so he thinks) at a young age, his wife leaving him, almost plummeting to his death from the International Space Station – these are all just things that get stowed away in little boxes in his brain, not to be looked at and most definitely not allowed to interfere with his mission.
After the Earth experiences immense power surges originating from the depths of the solar system, Roy (Brad Pitt) is sent on a mission to Mars. His superiors believe that his father, previously missing presumed dead, could in fact be alive – and responsible for the surges that pose a huge threat to life on our planet and beyond.
The biggest question that enters the mind whilst watching Ad Astra may well be – is James Gray okay? The themes of daddy issues and a man unable to express his feelings may be well-trodden ground, but the vast scale of Gray’s version is what turns this film into more of an experience than entertainment. There’s swathes of black on screen as the silent, starry galaxy acts as a backdrop to Roy’s journey, and despite the slow burn pace and minimal dialogue, your heart will pound at the constant threat of falling victim to the void.
Relentless floating, falling and zero gravity leaves you feeling untethered, moving farther and farther away from home, nowhere safe to plant your feet – and in space, as often in life, there is no safety net waiting to catch you. It’s a metaphor, clearly, for how lost Roy is and has always been, but it doesn’t matter how ‘on the nose’ the approach; the sense of place, loneliness and emptiness sucks you in all the same.
Space movies come with strong, cinematic visuals baked right in – sweeping views of planets from afar, plump white space suits seemingly swimming through the darkness, the symmetry and claustrophobia of the inside of a rocket – but Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema take cosmic beauty to a whole new level in Ad Astra. Brad Pitt’s bold blue eyes often fill the screen, and gold reflective visors are used to remarkable effect against the white of their suits and the black of space. On Mars, everything is set underground and bathed in a red and orange glow; in the rocket itself, the lighting moves between cool blues and warm ambers as if to mirror McBride’s mood. Gray has been given the budget to truly bring his vision to life, and every sumptuous shot is worth soaking in.
Roy is a highly repressed and restrained man who has spent his life putting on the performance of a normal guy, whilst always, as he says, keeping his eyes on the exit. We instantly get the sense of him as an outsider, and how hard he finds it to relate to the people he interacts with in even the smallest ways. This is Brad Pitt slashed down to the bones, his stardom and glamour and swagger melted away to reveal a highly capable but incredibly troubled character underneath. Pitt manages to break through his inexplicably increasing handsomeness to wordlessly express Roy’s pain, and much of our understanding of his emotions in any given moment are explained to us via his voiceover.
At some points, though, the script falls foul of too much telling and too little showing; as he checks in for his intermittent psych evaluations, Roy starts to become more self-aware than you would realistically expect. On occasion, the writing seems to spell out a feeling or internal revelation that the audience should have been trusted to gauge from his actions rather than his words.
Ad Astra is really a one-man movie, and as such the supporting cast – whilst outstanding – don’t get much to do. Donald Sutherland steps in for a few scenes as Roy’s father’s old friend and Ruth Negga is enthralling as always as the leader of the Mars military base, but they act as devices to move the plot along more than anything significant.
Most frustrating is Liv Tyler – playing Roy’s long suffering wife Eve (her name is only mentioned once), she spends most of her screen time as a blurry presence in the background of a shot, getting only one line of dialogue in the final cut (though the trailer gave her much more). This movie isn’t about her, and that’s fine, but it’s a big leap to try and care about her relationship with Roy as the film goes on when her depiction is more like an afterthought than a fully formed character.
Tommy Lee Jones is most impactful as Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride. The work that the first two thirds of the movie does to enable us to see him through Roy’s eyes gives him an almost mythic status; a living legend that Roy can barely walk down a corridor without being compared to. But as Ad Astra enters its final act and Roy’s hunt for fatherly salvation comes to a climax, the wheels come loose. That could be intentional – never meet your heroes – but it means that Major McBride’s leap into the unknown doesn’t quite stick its landing.
This may be the story of one man embarking on one epic journey to find his father, and himself, but the empathy that this film evokes – even for a character as stoic and self-loathing as Roy McBride – means that the viewer can’t help but be transported along with him. Ad Astra will leave you breathless at times, a little bored at others, but ultimately blinking in the sunlight as you exit the theatre and come back down to Earth. Those little boxes in Roy’s brain have been irrevocably broken open, and you might just feel as though you’ve tentatively peeked into some of your own, too.