ST. LOUIS — What if the fate of the world rested in your hands, and in order to save it, you had to stop your dad from destroying everything in the name of space exploration?
That is the beating heart at the center of James Gray's "Ad Astra", an ambitious new drama that demands the utmost attention of the audience yet provides a satisfying conclusion for the time spent. In a day and age where so many movies tackle the idea of chasing mysteries in space, Gray's film doesn't follow the trails of others, choosing to carve his own path instead.
Having Brad Pitt at the top of his game helps push the complex morals and themes of Gray's film across. It is precisely this kind of studio film that asks quite a bit of the audience for which you need a true blue movie star. A face people can trust and someone who can act without alienating the audience.
Pitt's Major Roy McBride is a well-respected astronaut and seemingly happy with his life on the surface, but below the skin and bones lies an internal battle between his past and future. McBride can't stop thinking about what happened to his dad, the esteemed yet emotionally-isolated Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). More than 13 years ago, the elder McBride went on a special mission searching for extraterrestrial life before suddenly going AWOL.
When a series of deadly "surges" endanger mankind and its future, Roy must go find his dad, whom the space program fears is behind the attacks, and bring him home at any cost.
You see, this is the kind of role that demands an actor to choose the slow-burn method, and Pitt nails it. He doesn't try to chew scenery or overplay the part. He invites you into Roy's head but doesn't give you all the answers right away.
Did Roy look up to his dad?
Did he want to be exactly what his dad was?
What was behind the reason for the separation from his wife (Liv Tyler)?
As Roy wrestles with that, we go with him on this treacherous journey, one that deals with the physical as well as the metaphysical, due to Pitt's grounded approach to the role. It's a vintage movie star role with a soulful touch.
We haven't seen Jones at his best in years, so it's an absolute treat to see him tackle the multi-layered complexities of the senior McBride, a genius mind who may have lost it all or just went too far with his beliefs. What if someone told you there was something else out in the galaxy, but they wouldn't give you a proper map or detail the cost of the journey? At some point, Clifford went so far and deep, he couldn't pull back. But is that all there is to the story? Roy has to find out.
Jones brings the heat here in his limited screen time, and it helps that you instantly believe the two actors as father and son. Sometimes, a veteran actor just needs the right role, like a mechanic giving a car some fresh legs. Jones found it here.
Among the rest of the cast, a few stand out. Donald Sutherland is very effective as an old colleague of Clifford's who comes along for the ride while Ruth Negga makes her presence felt as a pivotal piece of Roy's mission. Tyler doesn't get much to do except look disappointed and stare into Pitt's eyes.
"Ad Astra" is visually stunning, with the film vividly constructing the look of a world that's a decent ways in the future yet not outside the grasp of our modern minds. In this world, the moon isn't an unknown entity yet a tourist attraction, and also a launching pad for McBride on his mission. The advances in technology and all around are revealed in a subtle yet refreshing manner.
There's originality sprinkled throughout the film. The sound is terrific. Max Richter's score is Oscar-worthy, encompassing all the emotion of the experience while soaking in the thrilling elements of the story. I was fondly reminded of Hans Zimmer's work in "Interstellar" here.
While the film never wavers in its focus, there are parts of the film that move slower than others. Extended scenes with little dialogue stock full of soul-searching, peaceful moments with Roy and his inner demons. Gray isn't afraid to slow things down, because in life, no matter the setting, that's the thing that confounds us the most: the moments in life where all we face is the person in the mirror and the voices in our head. Roy faces this dilemma over and over again.
While the dramatic aspects of the film dominate the running time, there are a handful of visceral action sequences that are exceptionally put together. One involves a car chase on the surface of the moon between Roy's party and "pirates" trying to strip everything for parts, killing people in the process. Another involves loose primates on an abandoned space ship, including one freak out moment that will get a rise out of you. There are others, and they are patient and meticulously rendered.
It's as if Gray knew that one long exposition into the soul of an astronaut needed some eye-opening stunts, but all of the action drives the story instead of derailing it. Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross don't stick the landing on everything here, but their ambition far exceeds their execution and that's not a bad thing.
At the center of it all is Pitt, who makes you believe in Roy's journey and why it must be done. When your attention wavers, it's the 55-year-old actor who keeps you locked in. There's a good reason the poster simply showcases his brooding face. Ladies and gentlemen, that's all you need. What people still fail to grasp about Pitt is how good of an actor he is. "Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood" and "Ad Astra" should erase the doubt.
In the end, the film worked for me because Gray truly went for it. He's reaching for something that few filmmakers go for: the meaning behind life on Earth and out there beyond the stars. How it can lead a person down a number of roads, both dangerous and revealing. Placing that deliberate dilemma in space only heightens the effect. For Roy McBride, it's a chance to figure out where his father ends and he begins.
For the audience, it's a gripping movie that dares to be great. If you give it the time and show some patience, "Ad Astra" is a compelling cinematic choice.