Directed by James Gray. Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland. Length 124 minutes. Rotten Tomatoes 81%
Another year, another space exploration film, another Hollywood star trudging around in a space suit or floating in zero-gravity
Apart from this year’s blockbuster Toy Story 4, featuring the world’s most famous astronaut, Buzz Lightyear, Hollywood has released so many quality “space flavoured films” in recent years – Avatar (2009), Prometheus (2102), Gravity and Europa Report (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), Life (2017), First Man (2018), to say nothing of the Star Trek and Star Wars series– that I thought that the genre had been exhausted.
To my surprise, Ad Astra was quite immersive. It’s the work of James Gray, an American art-house director with several fine films to his credit. I did not move from my seat well after the credits began crawling up the screen. It wasn’t just the action but the human drama of Brad Pitt’s character, astronaut Roy McBride.
McBride is a respected astronaut who has been given a mission to stop an electrical pulse coming from the rings of Neptune that may be the cause of catastrophic electrical power surges on earth.
But the mission has a twist. Thirty years earlier McBride’s astronaut father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing along with his team on the “Lima Project”. Its objective was to find signs of extra-terrestrial life and venture to the outer reaches of the solar system, further than any team ever had been.
NASA lost contact with Clifford’s spaceship and they are presumed dead. But now NASA believes that Clifford is alive, has gone mad (I’d go mad if I had to eat space food for three decades) and is responsible for causing the power surges on earth from his spaceship.
NASA decides that the best person to stop Clifford is his own son.
With his stoic exterior and dedication to duty, Roy seems like a perfect fit for the job. But cracks appear in his steely determination after he embarks. He begins to question himself, his motives. What does he hope to achieve?
Is it to stop his father from causing havoc on Planet Earth or is it to see him again? Can he love his father? He wonders whether he’s proud of his father’s achievements or if he hates him for abandoning him and his mother to pursue an unquenchable passion to find extra-terrestrials.
Roy recalls terrible things he’s done in his own life and begins to wonder if he inherited his negative character traits from his father.
It gets pretty heavy as Roy McBride’s inner monologue is heard at different points throughout the film.
Like its predecessors, this astronaut-on-a-mission film ticks the boxes. The visuals are immersive, the special effects are stunning, the soundscape is captivating and the acting is convincing. But what sets Ad Astra apart is Roy’s existential self-interrogation.
There are lengthy sequences in which Brad Pitt talks to himself, searches his soul, longs for his father, in the darkness of space. It recalls Brad Pitt searching his soul in Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life. A few critics have noted that Ad Astra is like a Malick film set in space.
Unlike other space films, the central attraction of Ad Astra is not “in space no one can hear you scream” or special effects or blue hairy critters with daft accents. It is the gripping human questions of fatherhood, reconciliation, devotion to duty and the meaning of life. It shows once again that we may search for answers to the most urgent questions of the heart in the stars but we will only find them in this messy but beautiful world.
Sebastian James is a Sydney journalist.