Ad Astra: James Gray’s Stunning Sci-Fi Epic

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra (Francois Duhamel, 20th Century Fox)

Brad Pitt is the star and anchor of Ad Astra, a drama about an astronaut who is sent into space to locate his famous father, who many years ago commanded a spaceship that traveled to the outer reaches of the solar system—and then disappeared.

For Pitt’s character, Major Roy McBride, this mission becomes not only a sometimes harrowing journey in space, but an emotionally fraught journey of memory and longing that leads to unexpected consequences.

Opening with an intense action sequence, the film moves sometimes at a deliberate revelatory pace, other times with propulsive dynamism—all in a balance that moves the story forward both dramatically and emotionally. Supporting actors include Tommy Lee Jones as the elder McBride, Ruth Negga (so memorable in 2016’s Loving) as the commander of NASA’s Mars facility, Donald Sutherland as a mission advisor who knew Roy’s father, and Liv Tyler as Roy’s ex-wife.

Donald Sutherland in Ad Astra (Francois Duhamel, 20th Century Fox)

Pitt is perfect to portray the outwardly strong and resourceful, calm and fearless Roy, whose inner demons, exposed by this mission, begin to erode his normally dispassionate, tightly controlled mind. Roy is the master of compartmentalization, walling off any emotion that might disturb his equanimity on the job or in life, but as he learns what NASA is concealing about his father and as events unfold, those walls begin to break down and shards of disturbing memories begin to invade his consciousness. Can he handle what he encounters on this mission, and what will be the outcome? That’s what the story addresses as the film reaches its climax.

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra (Francois Duhamel, 20th Century Fox)

The visual elements of this film, as we’ve come to expect nowadays, are spectacular and arresting—from the depiction of rocket blast-offs, to the NASA facility on Mars, to the spaceship interiors, to the universe of stars and planets. The seamless blending of sets and CGI makes for remarkable realism. Award-winning cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema is known for Dunkirk (2017), Interstellar (2014), Her (2013), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Director-writer James Gray is known for making memorable award-nominated and award-winning films: The Lost City of Z (2016), The Immigrant (2013), Two Lovers (2008), We Own the Night (2007), The Yards (2000), and Little Odessa (1994). Gray’s films present complex multi-faceted characters who must navigate personal journeys of pain, self-determination, and revelation, and he attracts top quality actors to fill those roles. I would recommend viewing any of his films, including this one—they’re all exceptional.