Brad Pitt gives a career best performance as an astronaut who travels to the outer edges of the solar system in search of his long lost father in Ad Astra, James Gray’s entrancing new science-fiction movie. The film’s title is part of the latin phrase “Per aspera ad astra”, roughly meaning “through hardships to the stars”
As Earth is hit with a series of electrical surges emanating from outer space, astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) is called upon by his superiors to discuss a recent incident which almost ended his tragedy for him. When he arrives at the meeting, McBride slowly realises that what the authorities really need from him is to act as bait for his father, the legendary astronaut and scientist Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who disappeared some three decades earlier whilst on a research mission, and who is thought to be behind the recent cosmic events.
To help solve the mystery, McBride must travel to the Moon where a war between rival factions rages on, and where he is required to catch a second shuttle to Mars and finally be able to send a message to his father asking for his return.
Gray presents a beautifully complex narrative which is deeply entrenched in age-old philosophical questions about humanity’s place in the universe. With its long drawn-out sequences, often laden with allegories and symbolisms, what makes Ad Astra extra special is that Gray has managed to break all the rules by making a Homerian existential adventure under the guise of a big mainstream Hollywood production.
At times Ad Astra feels like a waking-dream in which all earthly rules can, and will, be broken in a sort of blood-letting catharsis. McBride’s quest to be reunited with a father he barely remembers often feels almost biblical in the simplicity in which it is presented to us, but this simplicity is evidently just another way to reel us in even further into attempting to decode far more complex issues.
As we watch McBride going through a near-impossible attempt to get into a spaceship heading to his father’s location, there is a sense that Gray wanted to highlight the lengths to which our subconscious is prepared to go to get to that which we desire the most. McBride swims, runs and then scales a spaceship with his bare hands as it is preparing to launch. This action sequence which might seem bafflingly outlandish and unrealistic in real life, makes perfect sense if seen as part of a dream sequence in which anything is possible.
It is perhaps simplistic to say that Ad Astra is just about fathers and sons, but at the heart of it, just like in Gray’s previous previous film The Lost City Of Z, there is a deep “absent father” narrative which runs through most of his work.
Key to the success of the film is Gray’s ability to go further and deeper than anyone has gone before in representing our purest and most visceral existential thoughts. Ad Astra is his magnum opus in a body of work which might not seem very accessible, but which remains soul-shaking nevertheless.
Elsewhere, voiceovers by Brad Pitt give the film a much needed first person voice which becomes essential as the story develops. Pitt puts in a stripped down, visceral and beautifully disarming turn as a man tormented by decades of loss and grief, while Ruth Negga gives one of her most devastating performances to date as Helen Lantos, a member of a colony on Mars who sees in McBride an unlikely ally.
Ad Astra is complex, but never never alienating or jarring. In short, James Gray has yet again given us a true cinematic masterpiece.