“Ad Astra” Reviewed: Ambling into the Unknown

The future looks strangely familiar in “Ad Astra,” director James Gray’s space drama about mortality, legacy and familial disturbances.

 

From the airline-esque accommodations on a shuttle to the moon to a lunar base’s neon Subway sign, there are many times in “Ad Astra” in which we’re left with an uncanny feeling of time periods intersecting, of futuristic facilities being saturated with present-day ephemera.

 

In other words, what we deem familiar becomes strange. Out of place. 

 

So it goes for Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride, a highly skilled and decorated astronaut whose past comes crashing into his future when he is tasked with the unenviable mission of investigating an MIA space crew led by his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).

 

The reason? Destructive power surges are wreaking havoc on Earth’s citizens from across the Solar System, originating from the outer regions of Neptune’s orbit, where the “Lima Project” — the space crew led by Roy’s father — had last made contact 16 years prior.

 

Roy’s mission is to establish communication with his previously thought-to-be-dead father, to find a way to stop the deadly surges and possibly bring his dad home.

 

As Roy comes to find, what was once familiar to him quickly turns strange — and vice versa. His journey — his “odyssey,” to invoke the great Stanley Kubrick’s monolithic “2001” — is one of distance, as well as heart. His entire life has led up to this one final push into the unknown. 

 

The thing is, he might not even want to know what — or, indeed, who — is on the other side.

 

Gray frames this Homeric quest not in traditional terms. Gone are Hollywood’s reliances on action set pieces and musically-driven soundtracks. In their place is a quiet and patient movie, a poetic meditation on the uncertainties of one’s life and work — and how everything in between can intersect when we least expect them to. 

 

The result is a very good film, at times even an excellent film. However, uneven narrative execution occasionally pulls the celestial highs of “Ad Astra” slightly back down to Earth — without actually making the story feel down to Earth. So to speak.

 

The story itself more or less unfolds as free-flowing narrative strands, almost like barely attached episodes of Roy’s most piercing memories en route to his long-lost father. These episodic scenes largely serve to punctuate emotion, rather than action, in Roy’s journey — which isn’t to say that nothing happens in them. Quite the contrary.

 

Lunar shootouts, space monkey thrashings and many riveting dialogue scenes fill the movie with plenty of narrative momentum. And most of the time, it works. However, Gray occasionally stumbles when it comes to linking events in his usual classical storytelling terms, relying on a voice-over narration earnestly performed by Pitt that feels like an intrusion on some of the many scenes in which it enters. 

 

With that being said, Pitt’s vocal performance, as well as the writing itself, is often very good and frequently resonates with real poetic reflection. The narration is simply used a bit too much to support the film, filling dead air in certain scenes in which the air should remain dead.

 

Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride in “Ad Astra,” directed by James Gray.

 

“Ad Astra” is an otherwise quiet film — an extremely quiet film, in fact. Gray wisely incorporates Max Richter’s evocative score sparingly, allowing the natural hums and droning of space travel to reverberate on the soundtrack. These unusually quiet scenes give weight, in a way, to the film’s many profundities — namely, our aforementioned themes of family, legacy and, yes, mortality.

 

Gray situates these weighty themes against a truly weightless visual backdrop — perhaps the director’s most cinematic work yet in purely visual terms. The film’s depiction of space travel alone is quite extraordinary, as is the stunning set design, which is often lit in warm tones. Oranges and yellows dance against space shuttle metal — in a way, juxtaposing Gray’s warm color palette with the cold steel of the future.

 

The effect is immediately reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterwork “Blade Runner,” as well as Denis Villeneuve’s excellent sequel “Blade Runner 2049.” While Gray’s use of the effect works well, it lacks the impact found in the “Blade Runner” films because of a relative lack of characterization.

 

In the “Blade Runner” movies, the idea of warm or cold, life or death, even human or machine is a constant undercurrent that provides resonance to those films’ visual choices.

 

In “Ad Astra,” the same principle applies, but it’s not turned all the way up. It could be argued that Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride resembles a “Blade Runner” replicant — ostensibly human but machine underneath. And Pitt turns in a stellar performance to convey this internal upheaval, contorting his face ever so slightly with an eyelid twitch or even a delayed sigh that reveals a world of emotional turbulence bubbling beneath his machine-like veneer. 

 

One scene in particular stands out for Pitt’s impeccable ability to deliver an unemotional message with barely-there hesitation while simultaneously shedding a tear. The entire moment is captured in a high-angle close-up shot that focuses in on every detail of Pitt’s face (which we all do most of the time, let’s be real).

 

But unlike “Blade Runner,” the rest of this movie doesn’t always allow its story to embrace this fascinating dichotomy between human and machine, or to even shift the focus to another character for an equally fascinating cross-examination. 

 

Instead, “Ad Astra” revels in intense and intimate close-ups of Pitt but doesn’t allow them to breathe. The film too often shifts to a new episode, a new memory in Roy’s journey without drawing a thematic connection. The linking that is done in “Ad Astra” is deliberately sparse and, at times, even multiple, combing for two or three or four thematic chains (often by way of Pitt’s narration) in a given scene that really only provides one. 

 

But maybe that’s by design. Maybe the narrative frustrations in “Ad Astra” are, in a way, justified, given the film’s near total focus on Pitt’s character and his inability to come to terms with his father (the film is framed as a space-themed character study, after all). The loose narrative strands and episodic disconnect that defines much of the film may even reflect Roy’s disconnect with his own story, his blind ambling into the unknown.

 

— Clinton Olsasky

 

“Ad Astra” is currently playing at Des Moines-area multiplexes.