If you like your space odysseys brimming with formula-filled blackboards and quantum mechanics, consider this a trigger warning: ‘Ad Astra’ is not that kind of sci-fi. Unlike ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘Interstellar’, two obvious points of parallel, there’s no Arthur C Clarke or Kip Thorne behind the scenes to bring Nobel-worthy science to the fiction. This is a movie where a man travels to Neptune, a distance of 2.7 billion miles, without ageing a day – a reach even when that man is Brad Pitt. It features killer baboons in zero gravity. At one point, Pitt jacks a spaceship – while it’s taking off. On paper, at least, it’s ‘Moonraker’ with a PhD.
Leave any disbelief at the door, though, and you’ll be rewarded with an often gorgeous, soulful sci-fi that’s charged with emotion and bursting with spectacle. It has meaningful things to say about letting go, dads and their sons, and the challenges of reconciling with the past. Sure, it’s set in ‘the near future’ and mostly against the endless solitude of space – captured by ‘Interstellar’ cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema with lunar greys and Martian ochres – and it boasts possibly cinema’s first moon-buggy chase (as awesome as it sounds), but director James Gray and his co-writer Ethan Gross never lose sight of its intimate heart. They’re aided in that by a terrific, nuanced performance from Pitt.
For the most part, ‘Ad Astra’ wears its near-future-ness with a light touch. Exactly what’s happening on Earth is kept deliberately murky, beyond it being a time of ‘hope and conflict’ where the ratio seems to skew heavily towards the latter. Short-haul space travel has been commercialised, while the mineral-rich moon is a battleground of vying national interests and plagued by space pirates. Mars is a springboard for the outer reaches of the solar system, though via the US military, not Nasa. That detail feels not insignificant in this troubled new world.
Negotiating this politicised solar system is Brad Pitt’s veteran astronaut, Major Roy McBride. He’s tasked with finding the father – legendary spaceman Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) – he’d long presumed dead. Not only is he very much alive, but he’s also gone rogue on a scientific mission near Neptune and has a seismic weapon at his disposal. Roy hasn't seen his old man for 16 years but doesn't seem particularly surprised to discover he’s gone the full Colonel Kurtz on the edge of space – or that he’s the likely source of radioactive bursts that threaten humanity’s survival. The stage is set for the ultimate father-son pep talk.
If ‘Ad Astra’ doesn’t have much time for the mechanics of space travel, it has an acute interest in the business of being an astronaut. McBride Jr’s pulse, we learn, never goes above 80. He’s subjected to regular Voight-Kampf-like tests to make sure his emotions are kept equally in check. He’s obliged to take mood stabilisers to help him ‘compartmentalise’, and cope with his time in space. In short, he’s a man with the mute button on. Unsurprisingly, his wife (Liv Tyler, under-employed) is out the door in the opening scene.
Pitt does a great job of smuggling a sense of boyish hurt under that carapace of coolness. The scars left by his father’s absence are more vivid than he realises and the final third of the movie is all the more moving for it. His brief scenes with Ruth Negga’s functionary on Mars, another victim of his dad’s scientific zealotry, carry real emotional charge. Production designer Kevin Thompson backdrops them with sets that are so Kubrickian, you wonder if they’ve wandered into an unexplored corner of ‘2001’.
Less successful is Pitt’s voiceover, which fills some of the blanks during the solo elements of his mission but is monotone and subdued. Max Richter and Lorne Balfe’s lovely, understated score fills the vast canvas much more effectively.
As with his equally ambitious ‘The Lost City of Z’, Gray looks for opportunities to let his story breathe – both films carry the stamp of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (and, of course, ‘Apocalypse Now’) in their man-on-a-thankless-mission philosophising – but he throws in sudden jolts of adrenaline to switch up the tempo. Space debris cascades, lethal lasers zip soundlessly through space and there’s a bit where things turn a little Silver Surfer in an asteroid field. It’s often thrilling, occasionally improbable, sometimes confounding, but like its director, ‘Ad Astra’ is never bound by the gravitational pull of the ordinary. Strap in.