Brad Pitt shoots into deep space in search of answers and salvation in Ad Astra, a beautiful, poetic, and pensive sci-fi thriller that doesn’t entirely deliver answers or salvation. James Gray has created one of the year’s most fascinating films, even if the film itself falls just ever short of greatness.
Pitt stars as the stoic Roy McBride, an emotionally distant astronaut whose pulse never rises above 80 even when an explosion rips apart the space antenna he’s working on, hurtling him all the way to Earth’s surface. The explosion, it turns out, was the result of a deep space energy surge that may or may not be related to his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who was presumed dead decades earlier after traveling to the outer reaches of the solar system.
From the film’s first moments, it becomes clear that Gray isn’t interested in making your 21st century sci-fi action movie, where things go boom and CGI flashes by from all corners of the screen. Ad Astra is very much a throwback to movies of lore, a thinking man’s drama where even the action unfolds in somewhat disconnected—though no less tense—state. This isn’t 2001, but this isn’t Gravity, either.
From the visuals to the music and the story packed in between, Ad Astra can truly be described as beautiful. Watching it on a big screen in a packed theater, the score literally shaking the seats, the movie is downright mesmerizing at times, even as it avoids the tricks filmmakers typically use these days to keep you glued to your seat. Gray establishes the pace, rhythm and contours of his moving canvas and never deviates from his mission, and for that he should be commended.
Even still, or as a result of, Ad Astra can be a test of patience. While the first half rolls along well enough—by the way, almost all of the footage shown in the trailers comes from this section of the movie, leaving the second half much a mystery—Ad Astra hits some turbulence later on as Pitt and crew venture into the unknown, taking the story into unpredictable but not always reliably captivating territory. There are a few parts that drag, and there are others where Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross seem to buck the constraints and rules of their semi-grounded universe, such as when Pitt somehow manages to sneak aboard a rocket during liftoff without being scorched alive or immediately destroying the spacecraft.
The film’s shift to psychological drama won’t play well with everyone—Ad Astra certainly isn’t guaranteed to be a crowd-pleaser—but the deep dive into Pitt’s mind doesn’t entirely work, either, because Gray and Gross seem unwilling to commit to where they want their story to go, or what they want it to be. To that end, the movie’s final act doesn’t land with precision—the big revelation isn’t as big as you’re probably hoping, the course of events not fully satisfying, the climax more baffling than mindboggling.
As well thought out as the journey appears to be, the destination is more shoddily slapped together, almost an afterthought. And it shows.
Nonetheless, Ad Astra’s beauty penetrates your soul in ways few movies this year have, or will. It’s not for everyone, and it’s by no means perfect, but it is a methodically contemplative (and yes, at times slow) sci-fi picture that deserves all the respect in the galaxy.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.