With Ad Astra, his second father-son adventure movie in a row, writer-director James Gray goes from the Amazon Jungle (The Lost City of Z presents duality of dreams via perilous adventure) to space … and the space between two generations of astronauts that binds them together. In the near future, humanity has begun fighting over property on the moon and the U.S. has established a base on Mars that only takes 19 days to travel to. When pulses of alien energy start hitting Earth, knocking out electronics that create waves of massive death, Space Command Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent on a top secret mission to investigate their source: Neptune. Funny coincidence, though, 30 years ago, McBride’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) was presumed dead after a failed mission near Neptune to make contact with intelligent life off Earth ended with his disappearance. When the possibility arises that Dad might be alive, Roy is sent to Mars to use the only secure line out to Neptune to contact him.
The mission to the interplanetary “telephone” is not that easy, however. It’s a good thing Roy has an uncanny ability to maintain a low resting heart rate. Even while free falling from an exploding space antenna it does go above 83 beats per minute. Our hero has to stop at the moon and take a dangerous lunar rover ride to the dark side, where he can take a rocket to Mars. There’s plenty of no man’s land on the moon where space pirates like to hijack transports or maybe murder for fun. No matter the motivation, there’s plenty of adventure and action sequences in Ad Astra — from bold rescue missions to stealthy stowaway plots and even a zero gravity fistfight. It’s fittingly manly stuff. However, underneath this thin veneer of masculine challenges are feelings.
Pitt takes stoicism to a heightened place in his performance. He’s nearly robotic with his focus on his tasks, which even include dumping his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) for the sake of concentration at work. His unattached attitude helps in a pinch several times. How Pitt, who also helped produce the film, carries steely resolve during several intense scenes is that bit of spice that makes all the difference. This is something he transmits in his magnetic blue eyes and the stillness of his square jaw. Beyond the flash of the intensity of action sequences, his performance provides the captivating glue to see how his journey goes to finally meet his father, who is of course the source of all his strengths and weaknesses. It ultimately calls for a subtle shift in Pitt revealing vulnerability behind that think, hardened exterior. It’s a beautiful thing to see him waffle between without any sense of overacting.
The relationship between father and son typifies the social construct of men following in their father’s passions for the sake of validation of existence. It also plays a key role in the drama but also in making this film so much more than over action and special effects. Though it’s worth highlighting the work of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, not to mention those few frames of space and spaceship lighting that play clear tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a recurring subject of this site), this film’s pulse lies in the father-son relationship. It raises Ad Astra to a place beyond all the superficial panache. Beyond all the space adventure antics, it ultimately reveals the power in sensitivity and how it transcends traditional masculinity, cracking open the hard metaphorical shell of the armor that tends to grow around men’s urge to suppress their feminine side. Ad Astra is beautiful not so much in its visuals, which are grand, but how the more soulful story of vulnerability and authenticity is allowed to seep through all the flashy visuals without stooping to melodrama.
Ad Astra runs 122 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens everywhere in the U.S. on Friday, Sept. 20. 20th Century Fox invited us to a preview screening in IMAX for the purpose of this review.