As he embarks on a journey into deep space, Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt), the protagonist of James Gray’s new film Ad Astra, frequently invokes humanity’s need to explore, to blast into the cosmos out of a sense of duty and purpose. Looming over the movie is the memory of Roy’s astronaut father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who is believed to be lost after a noble mission to Neptune in search of alien life. But the film is set in the near future, when the romantic sheen of going to the stars is beginning to fade. As Roy takes his seat for a commercial flight to the moon—the first of many stops on a long odyssey—he requests a blanket and pillow from the Virgin Galactic attendant and is politely charged a $125 fee.
Gray remains one of Hollywood’s most undervalued and exciting talents, despite producing a remarkable body of work over the past 25 years. After beginning with a series of street-level crime movies (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night), he’s widened his scope with each subsequent project, and his last, The Lost City of Z, was a masterpiece about a man’s search for the sublime, rendered in resolutely human terms. Ad Astra is Gray’s most sweeping story yet, set out in the magisterial solar system, but it manages to feel incredibly small-scale; it’s a fable about the importance of person-to-person connection in the face of astounding technological advancement.
The stakes of Ad Astra’s plot are of the grand, life-or-death variety. The film—set during a time when the moon has been colonized and humankind is trying to explore the outer reaches of space—begins with a mysterious global catastrophe in which most of Earth loses power. The source is an unspecified surge of energy from Neptune, which is where Roy’s father was last heard from. So Roy is sent in search of his Clifford, hopping on a rocket to the moon, then making his way to Mars and the planets beyond, switching between private enterprises and military operations.
Gray, who co-wrote the film with Ethan Gross, quietly crafts a rotting world overrun with cheap commercialism. This is not the apocalyptic dust-bowl landscape of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and only a smidgen of time is spent on our planet before Roy blasts off. But there are plenty of mundane and depressing details to ponder, including that expensive spaceflight pillow and the prevalence of chains such as Subway and Applebee’s on the moon. Pitt’s performance is taciturn, but it’s a thoughtful piece of characterization. Even though Roy monologues in voice-over about the glory of exploration, his public persona has the kind of unemotional disposition demanded by his military career.
Roy clearly inherited that coolheadedness from his dad, and as Roy travels farther away from home, the underlying tension of Ad Astra’s plot comes into focus. Was the professional but aloof father that Roy knew just a facade? Was there something darker churning underneath, or did space somehow change Clifford for the worse? Gray uses those unanswered questions to push his narrative along, but as in The Lost City of Z, Roy’s relationships with the people around him prove to be just as crucial as the bigger, scarier themes of man’s relationship to the great unknown.
Ad Astra shares some superficial similarities with Interstellar, including its cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema (who has a special gift for galactic-size canvases), and its premise of parents and children working out their feelings in spaceships. But this is more of a character-driven genre film than Nolan’s existential epic. Roy is something of a Man With No Name, a lonesome cowboy on a wagon train through the stars who runs into an assortment of intriguing people along the way. Among the scene-stealers are a steely Ruth Negga as a stressed-out Martian colonist, a sorrowful Donald Sutherland as a former colleague of Clifford’s, and Liv Tyler in a largely undercooked role as Roy’s estranged wife.
Each of the film’s set pieces is softly spectacular: a buggy chase across the sandy craters of the moon, a creepy encounter with another distressed ship in deep space, and a particularly dramatic spacewalking sequence. But each scene functions as a building block in the tale Gray is telling about Roy, whose dispassionate professionalism saves his life on many occasions, but who might not have enough empathy for the world around him. In the tremendous final act, Gray fleshes out all those dilemmas, gently but powerfully. The lesson of the film is a straightforward one—that in the future, people will still need to rely on one another—but Ad Astra communicates it with staggering profundity.