With its austere surfaces and jaundiced view of humanity's interplanetary destiny, James Gray's stirring sci-fi epic Ad Astra can't help but evoke Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the paterfamilias of all "serious" space movies. But in fact it's a closer cousin to another long-delayed, wildly over-budget spectacle that initially fared better with ticket-buyers than critics, only to be revealed in time as a masterpiece: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
Like Coppola's surreal Vietnam War movie, Ad Astra is told to us by a haunted man on a mission into the unknown. After a thrilling set piece involving an unplanned high-altitude skydive from the "International Space Antenna," Brad Pitt's Major Roy McBride is dispatched to investigate the cause of a series of destructive cosmic ray bursts emanating from Neptune.
McBride is given the task because his superiors believe these disruptions might somehow have been caused by his father (Tommy Lee Jones), commander of an exploration mission that was presumed lost some 16 years earlier. In the event the old man has somehow survived and gone all Colonel Kurtz on them, they're hoping his baby boy might be able to talk him down.
One needn't have seen 2001 — or for that matter, last year's undervalued Neil Armstrong biopic First Man — to grok that emotional availability is the one area in which McBride is seriously deficient. (His heart rate has never risen above 80, his dossier says.) In space, no one can hear you cry...
... though they are sometimes privy to your internal monologue. "We are the world-eaters," McBride laments in voiceover as he takes in the Applebees and Hudson News shops that pimple the near side of the moon in the mid-to-late 21st century. The only thing Ad Astra shares with the comparatively upbeat adventure The Martian is a notion we might be wiser to leave space exploration to our robots. We see McBride file a psychological self-evaluation each time he's getting ready to launch; only if the A.I. concurs with his assessment that he's fit to fly is he permitted to go.
Pitt is in every scene and frequently in close-up; now in his mid-50s, his face continues its preternaturally slow erosion from handsome to interesting. This is his second admirably interior performance in two months, but the laconic swagger he brought to Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is long gone. He plays McBride as a contemplative spaceman in the Armstrong mold; not one of those swaggering jet jocks Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff.
Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross are shrewd enough to consider that the qualities that made McBride a washout as a husband (Liv Tyler appears briefly as his estranged spouse in a near-silent role) make him an ideal candidate for the privation and solitude of space travel. Like Gray's most recent picture, a soulful adaptation of the nonfiction book The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is interested in the psychology of explorers. And while the filmmaker is careful to punctuate his existential walkabout with expertly staged feats of derring-do — there's a pirate raid on a convoy of moon buggies, and it's awesome — he and his collaborators have done enough homework to let us suspend our disbelief without feeling like we're selling it cheap. Their predictions of how commerce and geopolitics might play out on the moon in perhaps 50 years' time are woven into the narrative rather than ladled on. And the movie's analog aesthetic — Ad Astra was shot on photochemical film, using practical sets wherever feasible — gives it a lens-flaring verisimilitude that makes it feel more substantial than all those space-set Marvel movies, for example.
Although Tyler is barely in the movie, the rest of the supporting cast delivers the requisite gravitas: Along with elder spacemen Jones and Donald Sutherland, there are brief but memorable appearances from Ruth Negga as the administrator of the American outpost on Mars and Loren Dean as a clay-footed rocket crewman.
Ad Astra borrows some below-the-line talent from other sterling genre specimens of recent vintage: Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema shot Interstellar five years ago, while composer Max Richter (who shared scoring duties with Lorne Balfe) contributed a song to Arrival. This film has big philosophical differences with those two, but it makes its observations about our place in the cosmos with equal grace, even majesty. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, the arc of the physical universe might bend towards just us. That doesn't mean we stop seeking.
In a previous version of this post, we said that Max Richter "did the music for Arrival." We should have said that Richter composed the piece "On the Nature of Daylight" used in that film; Arrival's score was composed by Johann Johannsson.