Among my many complaints about Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is how muddled it is in scope. Is it a movie about space time travel? About the future of humanity? About a scientist and her cosmos-wandering father? I’m not sure and neither is anyone else. What’s clear is that any film would have trouble being all those things simultaneously, successfully. “Interstellar” tries, and the result is claustrophobically awkward.
An equally grand movie that gracefully dodges these complications is “Ad Astra.” To call James Gray’s (“The Lost City of Z”) latest work a space drama would be almost wrong. It’s probably better classified as a drama that happens to take place in space. While the hazards, lessons, and implications of interplanetary travel compose the film’s backdrop, “Ad Astra” is purely the story of a broken man’s relationship with his father. When strange power surges threaten all life on Earth in the near future Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, “Deadpool 2”) embarks on a journey for their origin — the last known location of his disappeared father.
One element common between “Ad Astra” and “Interstellar” is cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”). His experience with space imagery is vividly apparent here, taking advantage of a serene camera and eerie solar lens flares. He expertly contrasts the slate gray interiors of human buildings with the literally otherworldly hues of the galaxy. Nearly every frame, whether simple aerial shots of the Earth surface or a windowed corridor on Mars, is picturesque.
As aesthetically beautiful as it is, the wistful charm of “Ad Astra” comes from the details of its narrative. Among them are a harrowing rescue operation of a medical research ship, a freefall from the International Space Satellite near the film’s start and a spectacular chase sequence that can only be characterized as “Mad Max” on the moon. (I wouldn’t have minded if this part became the whole movie.) Many more of these details emerge in the film’s bracing, enigmatic final act that must be discovered for oneself. But Roy’s journey is a marvel in storytelling, suffused with operatic momentum. Every obstacle feels like a necessary sidestep, contributing a valuable spoke to the film’s narrative wheels.
Pitt’s performance is nothing short of remarkable. The movie places him in the center of its every scene, and even in long cosmic stretches without dialogue or voiceover, his thoughts, confusions and anxieties seem tangible. He rides the line between conveying just enough to keep our eyes fixed on his and clearly holding back something vulnerable. Indeed, Roy’s vulnerability is a cagey and fleeting thing, appearing in the twitch of a cheek muscle here, a momentary pause before mentioning his dad’s name there. But whenever Pitt brings this quality out, it’s as much a relief from the pain as it is a foray into it.
Between Roy McBride and Cliff Booth, Pitt’s recent role as a quirky, violent stuntman in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he’s demonstrated how varied two quiet characters can be. Where Roy is an aching, convincing sympath, Cliff is wry and detached and want-less. But neither character speaks much. The space between these laconic poles is, and has always been, the essence of Brad Pitt’s charisma.
A compelling choice by Gray was to surround Roy with death. Death is the consequence for so many fellow astronauts Roy encounters, and the gravitas of that reality is unbearable for some. What makes a career marked by death different for him is not that he’s immune to emotion, but that he feels like he must be. Roy’s understanding of that ultimate price is messy, and watching this internal grapple is a genuinely affecting experience.
It’s safe to say that “Ad Astra” is my favorite movie of the year so far. I found every moment of the film as captivating as the last, and I left the theater a little more optimistic about the future of both movies and human civilization. What else could one want?