In his most ambitious feature yet, director James Gray tells the story of astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who embarks on a daring mission across the solar system to counter an existential threat to the world. Over the course of the film, McBride also faces some serious daddy issues in space, as he gradually uncovers the truth about his long missing father (Tommy Lee Jones).
Despite its slightly Shakespearian and predictable premise, Ad Astra is quite a feat. Set in the near future, it offers a chilling realistic vision of the future, in which humans have made great technological advancements. Commercial space travel has become just another means of transportation, people have colonized Mars, while the Moon is swirling with tourists and Subway restaurants as well as unlawful bandits ruling its far side. Unfortunately, however, this fascinating world remains disappointingly unexplored and mostly described through clunky exposition as Gray remains strictly focused on McBride’s expedition to save the world.
Living up to its name, Ad Astra (Latin for ‘To the stars’) provides several stellar performances by Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones and most notably Brad Pitt himself. Fully transforming into his character, Pitt delivers a minimalistic and grounded performance of an astronaut whose surreal calm and disciplined personality makes him the perfect fit for the mission. His rather static personality, however, makes the protagonist hard to root for, especially since the stakes of the existential threat are not properly exploited or shown.
Another of the film’s shortcomings is that, while it boldly explores important questions about humanity’s role in the universe and what might lie ahead in the future, it struggles with its effort to appeal to wide audiences as an accessible blockbuster. This results in an unbalanced film with both existence-defining moments and thrilling spectacle in the form of a lunar rover chase sequence or a violent brawl with a space monkey.
Beautifully shot and designed, Ad Astra might be the science-fiction film of the year. But its flawed storytelling and uneven focus unfortunately make its main message get lost somewhere along the way.