Ad Astra Is the Rare Space Movie That Sticks the Landing

James Gray’s astronaut epic manages to tie together Brad Pitt, space monkeys, and a lunar Applebee’s.

Brad Pitt in full astronaut gear as Roy McBride in Ad Astra
Brad Pitt as Roy McBride in Ad Astra Francois Duhamel - © Twentieth Century Fox

When Brad Pitt, as the astronaut Roy McBride, flies to the moon in James Gray’s elegant space epic Ad Astra, he takes Virgin Atlantic. Though the company’s logo looks roughly the same, an onboard blanket-and-pillow pack will, by the time this movie’s undated near-future arrives, cost $125. The moon base where Roy’s commercial flight lands also boasts an Applebee’s, a Subway, and other familiar fixtures of the landscape of 21st-century capitalism. These brand names go uncommented on, mere background details in the dense weave of a story that pairs intense action sequences—we’ll get to the moon-buggy car chase momentarily—with long stretches of near silent cockpit-bound solitude. But the inclusion of those familiar corporate signs gives this sometimes driftingly abstract movie a grounding in the recognizable world, not to mention a welcome dash of humor.

Many of the auteur-driven space exploration sagas of the past decade–Gravity, First Man, Interstellar, The Martian—have focused on the loneliness of the individual astronaut, cut off from all earthly sources of comfort and meaning and forced to reinvent life from the ground up in a place where there is no ground; where in moral as well as gravitational terms, up is down and down is up. Ryan Gosling’s existentially adrift Neil Armstrong, Sandra Bullock’s solitary survivor of a space station–destroying disaster, Matt Damon’s left-behind scientist sowing his potatoes in the red Mars dirt: All these were movie stars-in-space in the same tradition as Pitt’s Roy McBride, who also supplies a noir-tinged voiceover that’s reminiscent of the older sci-fi classic Blade Runner. The rarefied states of film celebrity and cosmic solitude somehow go naturally hand in hand. The hyper-recognizability of world-famous faces under those globe-shaped helmets is part of what makes their predicament so identifiable: If Brad Pitt can get lost in space, anyone can.

In most of these movies, too, the trip outward is accompanied by an equal and opposite journey within. The protagonists travel distances that are barely comprehensible to the human mind and survive under unimaginable (and probably scientifically impossible) conditions, all in the name of recovering either a lost loved one or the truth about some past relationship. The survival of the planet is a necessary but not sufficient cause to impel them to action. In the case of Ad Astra, the immediate reason for Roy’s trip is the mysterious surges of energy that have been emanating from the vicinity of Neptune, imperiling life on Earth. The planetary death toll from the surges, according to one briefly glimpsed news chyron, is already more than 43,000, a body count that would put many sci-fi blockbusters to shame. But Roy McBride also has unresolved family issues to solve, and it’s made clear from early on that these two problems—Earth’s survival, Roy’s dad stuff—are not fundamentally separable from one another.

The dad in question, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), is a legendary scientist and space explorer who disappeared decades ago on a mission so classified that Roy has to take the first leg of his Neptune-bound journey undercover. Donald Sutherland, as an old friend of Clifford now charged with serving as his son’s mentor, provides some sinuous exposition about the possible connection between the elder McBride’s fate and the errant energy bursts now endangering the solar system. But the main purpose of this setup is to get Roy into space as quickly as possible, where he drifts for most of the movie, hurtling past mind-bending cosmic spectacles, ruminating in laconic voiceover, and occasionally battling rabid space baboons.

I don’t mean to adopt a tone of mockery in describing a movie that, for the bulk of its two-hour-and-two-minute running time, I watched in a state of hypnotized delight. Especially seen in IMAX, Ad Astra, shot by the great Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who also shot Interstellar), is itself a mind-bending cosmic spectacle. Without using 3-D, the camera seems to give an impression of infinite depth, often returning to long shots that emphasize the tininess of human beings and their creations amid the vast abyss of space. The score, by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe, eschews the symphonic grandeur often associated with space “operas”; instead, this is space chamber music, delicate but ominous, hinting at a melancholic truth that slowly reveals itself to the viewer (and even more slowly, to Roy): No matter how far away from Earth we travel, there’s no escaping our own human problems, limitations, and weaknesses.

The preternaturally hot face and body of Brad Pitt might seem like a strange vehicle for these ruminations on human frailty. But Pitt’s very beauty, along with his on-screen history as an ideal of manly invulnerability (just think of him earlier this summer, sauntering his way through Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) make him an ideal blank canvas for Gray’s exploration of masculinity as a culturally approved form of pathology. As part of his ongoing mental and physical fitness testing, Roy must submit to periodic psychological evaluations. After affixing a patch to his neck to measure his vital signs—Roy is such a cool customer, he’s known for never having his pulse go above 80 beats per minute—he answers computerized questions about his emotional state. Tellingly, it’s when his responses grow most truthful and vulnerable that the test is marked as a “fail” and his fitness to serve is questioned by his superiors. The sickness of patriarchy, Ad Astra suggests, lies not only within individual men: It’s built into a system that values humans insofar as they can act and react like machines.

As for women, like many a space exploration saga, Ad Astra treats them for the most part as futuristic sailors’ wives, patiently holding down the fort while the menfolk push at the edges of the known cosmos. The movie’s only recurring female character is Roy’s symbolically named wife Eve (Liv Tyler), who, as we see in mainly wordless flashbacks, has just left him, fed up with his emotion-swallowing ways. Ruth Negga appears in two scenes as commander of the Mars base where Roy stops before the final leg of his trip; when we first see her she is denied entry, by a man, into a part of the base that’s off-limits even to her. And inexplicably but amusingly, Natasha Lyonne, with curls untamed and New York accent intact, shows up in a single scene as a kind of gate agent at the Mars base launchpad. I would happily watch an Ad Astra prequel about that character, who must surely have arrived at her job via a trajectory at least as interesting as Roy’s.

Though Ad Astra spends most of its running time in a state of stargazing introspection, when Gray does film an action set piece, he stages it with originality and kinetic panache. That moon-buggy chase, with space pirates ambushing a fleet of U.S. Air Force vehicles along the lip of a crater, is like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road, but with 17 percent of the gravity. The many zero-G flight scenes, including an ingeniously staged floating fistfight, were all accomplished practically, with actors suspended on wires rather than rendered weightless through CGI, and the effect is enormously convincing.

But the confrontation the movie builds toward, as Roy’s journey takes him ever closer to the father who’s spent a lifetime getting as far from humanity as possible, is the opposite of a superhero-style apotheosis. “I will not rely on anyone or anything,” Roy repeats to himself early in the movie, both as a personal mantra and a professional vow. “I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.” It’s the slow and painful abandonment of that cult of self-sufficiency that makes the final scenes so moving, and that brings the soaring abstractions of Ad Astra back down, beautifully, to earth.