There’s a moment in Ad Astra that will remind you of countless others in the canon of science fiction film. A spaceship is on an extremely important mission, with literally the fate of humanity at stake, when a mayday message pings across the captain’s console. Better go see what’s up — it’s a Norwegian research vessel! They could be experiencing a loss of oxygen or, worse, a hygge leak.
You’ll think you have a pretty good sense of the range of possibilities here, and so did I, but reader, there’s a twist I did not see coming. I won’t spoil its nature for you, but I can safely tell you that Roy (Brad Pitt), our designated protagonist, greets it with a hangdog look of resigned tenacity. What fun is that?
Not much fun at all…but see, this is Roy’s thing. He doesn’t get worked up. Even the top brass know his reputation for having a pulse rate that never hits the triple digits, even in the movie’s opening scene when he undergoes a vertiginous ordeal that even drunk yokels at a county fair might think twice about signing up for.
Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z), who wrote the screenplay with Ethan Gross, has crafted an extremely somber yet inescapably ridiculous tour of the solar system. Roy is constantly taking automated exams to ensure his psychological fitness, which serves little practical function since his superiors rarely have any real choice but to let him continue. However, they provide the audience with regular indications of how Roy’s well-reinforced affective walls are withstanding the combination of a mission with indescribably high stakes and a barrage of troubling new information about his father.
Roy’s dad (Tommy Lee Jones, who’s actually only 17 years Pitt’s senior) was a legendary astronaut who’s long been presumed dead since his mission to Neptune went offline. While Gray nods to lodestar 2001: A Space Odyssey in various ways both obvious and subtle (Roy passes through a moon base located in the crater where Kubrick’s monolith was unearthed), the premise of Ad Astra is closer to sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Something happened to that lost mission…but what? Are aliens involved? This time around, the title doesn’t give it away.
Would that 2010 star Roy Scheider was still around to grace Ad Astra with his smart blend of wit and grit. Don’t expect any “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” moments here; Pitt doesn’t allow us to think for a moment that he’s trying to exude charisma or get a laugh. He can’t help looking sexy in a spacesuit, but he very effectively cuts off any temptation to giggle even when he’s pulling off stunts that you’d blanch to ask of Captain America.
The best that can be said of the film’s narrative frame is that it largely stays out of the way, preventing mawkish sentimentality (see: Interstellar) or unlikely wormholes (see: Arrival) from getting in the way of an unusually creative sprint through space. The action sequences are genuinely original, and Gray conducts his hero through a generous array of striking SF environments — from a towering space antenna to a bustling moon base (the presence of an Applebee’s might be the only joke in the movie) to a dusty subterranean Martian town replete with feral dogs.
Even the film’s climax gives new meaning to the phrase “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Same goes for a tasteful but appreciative golf clap, which is about what this movie earns.