As a quiet and introspective space movie about a search for truth, with personal ramifications, “Ad Astra” follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a level-headed astronaut in the near future as he journeys to the far reaches of our solar system on a mission to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones). McBride’s father, Clifford, is long believed to be dead after communications stopped 16 years into his search for intelligent life. After a catastrophic event dubbed “the Surge” threatens the entire solar system, Roy McBride’s search for answers may be the last hope for all mankind.
This film is a case study on the relationship between father and son. Pitt delivers a nuanced performance of a man with more complexity than the film, or his character, initially let on. The effects of his work and the disappearance of his father slowly come through the cracks of his facade. While this film does boast a talented supporting cast list, including Donald Sutherland, this is Brad Pitt’s movie. The rest of the cast isn’t given much to do beyond push Pitt’s character forward in the story, as this is really his role to shine.
It’s a visually striking film with effects that are used relatively sparingly, adding to the impact when it shows off its technical prowess. The cinematography and art direction is slick, and its monochromatic palette and minimalistic look adds style to the world of this film. Featuring the same cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, as other visually delightful films such as “Dunkirk” (2017) and “Interstellar” (2014), there is precedent for this film’s beauty. Its grounded depiction of a commercial space-airport on the moon was a small but effective way in which this film sets itself apart from other futuristic films and builds a believable world that these characters live in.
“Ad Astra” brims with suspenseful action scenes that, while few and far between, are quite impressive. One sequence has Pitt and company respond to an SOS call of a ship doing research on animals that leans heavily to the horror aspects of the situation. Another standout sequence is a lunar rover chase with moon pirates, which offers a fresh glimpse of what this movie could have been if it devoted itself to being an action blockbuster film.
The slow pace of the film and the tendency for it to lean into the psychological and artistic elements make this a movie that likely won’t connect with the entirety of the general viewing public. The pace and strong visual choices in its artistic direction are reminiscent of 2014’s “Ex Machina,” a similar film with a deeply psychological story underneath its mainstream movie concept.
The film is not the space action epic it promotes, as the bulk of the action is highlighted in the trailers. The story, like its protagonist, slowly reveals its true self over the course of the film. “Ad Astra” is not an action blockbuster, and the protagonist is not the cookie cutter “best we’ve ever seen” astronaut. At its core, this is a story of intergenerational trauma and isolation.
The isolating experiences of McBride in space parallels the personal isolation he subjects himself to, creating distance between him and his wife (Liv Tyler). “Ad Astra” presents grand questions of extra terrestrial nature and the fate of the human race but doesn’t seek to provide equally grand answers. The answers that matter to this story are the personal ones of McBride (Pitt), regarding his father and, more importantly, himself.