I can only imagine that the woman who declared this to be “the most boring space movie I have ever seen” upon exiting a Brisbane screening must have been expecting something altogether different than a moody, meditative drama that plays out in deep space. Tonally and aesthetically, Ad Astra is much closer to Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even Duncan Jones’ Moon, than it is to the types of science-fiction that might typically placate mainstream tastes. After all, there are no warp speeds, light sabres or storm troopers to be found in this tense and visually sumptuous examination of masculinity, particularly with regard to familial relationships and the ways in which the sins of the father become the burden of the son. Director James Gray follows his previous film The Lost City of Z with another that also explores how exploration can fundamentally change a man, although the journey on this occasion is on a somewhat larger scale.
Set in a near future where space travel is prevalent and relatively easy, Brad Pitt is the epitome of cool, calm and collected as Roy McBride, an astronaut whose heart rate never rises beyond 80bpm, even when he is free-falling to earth following a power surge that sends him plummeting from a communications tower that reaches to the edge of space. The surge devastates Earth and results in the deaths of thousands of people, prompting the powers-that-be to send McBride in search of the source, which has been traced to an anti-matter device stationed near Neptune. As it happens, this is the location from which last contact was made with an exploratory mission known as the Lima Project, whose objective was to explore the furthest reaches of the solar system in search of intelligent life. The leader of this ill-fated mission was Roy’s father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who has long been presumed dead. However, the boffins have determined that Clifford may not only be still alive, he may also be responsible for the attack on Earth. Roy is sent to Mars, via the Moon, in an attempt to make contact with his father and ultimately pinpoint the location of his interstellar hidey-hole.
On the one hand, Gray has dished up a romanticised version of a future in which the Moon serves as a tourist trap and stopover point for those travelling to the further reaches of the galaxy. However, he never shies away from the inherent dangers associated with such travels and there are numerous people who meet their demise along the way. Greed, selfishness and fear are the norm rather than the exception and this is perhaps understandable given the risks inherent in even the most (seemingly) mundane tasks, with the likes of Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland playing characters who exist, largely it seems, to cast a little bit of humanity on proceedings, a counterpoint to the clinical impersonality that otherwise pervades this brave new world.
A film that somehow manages to be very large in scale and includes some traditional action elements, such as a moon buggy chase and shootout, Ad Astra remains deeply personal and philosophical with Pitt delivering one of his very best performances as a man whose auspicious reputation is built as much on the legend of his father as it is his own significant achievements. Liv Tyler (Armageddon, Robot and Frank) is confined to little more than a cameo as the wife Roy is leaving behind, while Natasha Lyonne pops up somewhat unexpectedly in a small role. In the recent tradition of Gravity and Interstellar, this is ‘highbrow’ sci-fi that seems likely to secure awards recognition, perhaps for Pitt and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who shot Interstellar and Dunkirk for Christopher Nolan and dishes up some stunning imagery here once again. Shot in widescreen on 35mm, Ad Astra beautifully captures the majesty, wonder, stillness and sheer isolation of outer space. It is tense, thought-provoking and certainly not boring.