Thank the heavens for good timing.
If James Gray's space epic Ad Astra hadn't already been virtually in the can by the time Disney took over 20th Century Fox, there's no way this little miracle of a movie ever would have seen the light of day on this planet or any other. Disney has been crueler than it has been kind with Fox’s slate of announced projects since taking over, and they seem increasingly narrow in their interests of making movies that are capable of raking in billions at the global box office. Ad Astra is not that kind of movie. Anyone who doubts Brad Pitt's stroke and star power at the end of the 2010s need look no further than this, the sort of movie that would be anathema to a major studio without a generational superstar dragging it into existence. The likes of James Gray (The Immigrant, We Own the Night, The Lost City of Z) helming a prestige sci fi major release (3,400 screens) for a big studio in the same release window as movies like Gravity and The Martian and First Man is definitely the sort of gambit you only get to pull off once. And only because you have someone like Pitt at the forefront to sell the thing.
He plays Roy McBride, an astronaut in a near future Earth far more accustomed to and capable of space travel than we are today. He’s pressed into a dangerous mission across the far reaches of the Solar System to investigate the possibility that his long presumed dead father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), himself an even more famous trailblazer of an astronaut, may still be alive in the vicinity of Neptune. That’s the source of a series of dangerous antimatter explosions, deemed The Surge, which are wreaking havoc on Earth and represent a potentially existential threat if they continue unabated. None but Clifford have ventured that far into the galaxy, and the government’s belief is none but Roy can bring him back. Thus he departs on a mission of incredible peril to see if he can reunite with the man who abandoned him and maybe save the world on the way.
Pitt has all the weight on his shoulders, no surprise considering how often isolation and loneliness factors heavily into films like this. Compared to some of the recent examples of the form (McConaughey in Interstellar, Bullock in Gravity, Damon in The Martian, Gosling in First Man), Pitt more than holds his own, offering the opposite side of the coin to his turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just a few short months ago. It’s telling that Pitt is comfortable showing a bit more of his age here, a fully grown man with his own life and own destiny and yet everyone still just sees the shadow of his disappeared father. At the same time, there’s more than a little bit of Apocalypse Now in Ad Astra, with Jones as the deranged Kurtz and Pitt as his Captain Willard, tasked to go upriver into dangerous territory and bring him back from the brink of sanity or kill him trying. There’s plenty of other references to be found here; Roy’s trials and tribulations often feel like Odysseus’ long trek home in The Odyssey, and the way it tests the limits of our understanding of space recalls another odyssey of the Kubrick variety.
Ad Astra is a hair under two hours by the time its credits begin to roll, but it honestly feels like more time has passed. That's not meant to be a slight as it so often is when movies feel longer than their run times, but it's more of a testament to the metric ton of stuff Gray and Gross manage to fit in even amongst the requisite stillness that accompanies a flick like this. It manages to comfortably travel across the solar system and back without sacrificing the necessary introspection at the core of its tale, a true feat indeed. And yet, even with these lofty aspirations and influences, there’s time for a little bit of pulp along the way. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyseey can hold people at arm’s length due to their perceived (and at times earned) pretension, and Ad Astra, with its Latin-derived title and art film sensibilities, seems ripe for such derision. But it’s a remarkably easy watch, proof that Gray is capable of something resembling populism (even if that populism is through the lens of Malickian narration). It’s ponderous, but purposeful. To be fair, this is not the sort of movie that’s going to be a surefire hit across all audiences. But those who find themselves on Gray’s wavelength will be richly rewarded with a smart, affecting and surprisingly grounded science fiction tale about a man and his father.