“Like father, like son.” It’s an idiom that Roy McBride both exemplifies and resents.
Roy’s father, renowned astronaut H. Clifford McBride, left home during his son’s teenage years to search the depths of space for signs of intelligent life with U.S. Space Command, spearheading what became known as the Lima Project. All known communications from Clifford ceased 16 years later after he reached Neptune, virtually leaving his 29-year-old son an orphan and his ailing wife a widow.
But Roy (Brad Pitt) felt his father’s absence long before his silence. Still, he became an astronaut himself, though his often-dangerous exploits linger in the shadow of his old man (Tommy Lee Jones), who will always be remembered as a sacrificial lamb for the cause of exploration.
That is, until he shows signs of life once more.
A number of electrical surges pummel Earth from the direction of Neptune, causing blackouts, destruction and a death toll in the tens of thousands. Roy’s superiors believe the surges might be tied to the Lima Project — after all, it’s the only known source of life coming from that direction — and order him to investigate, meaning a long-overdue reunion might lie on the horizon. But what follows is much more a voyage into the depths of Roy’s mind — which, as he learns unsettling truths about his father and ventures deeper into star-soaked nothingness, might be more fragile than he fears.
“Ad Astra” cements Pitt as perhaps his generation’s greatest American performer -- and he happens to be wrapping up a banner year. As the reserved, emotionally distant yet tortured Roy, he wrings every bit of empathy out of the viewer as possible while remaining largely understated, a striking foil to the cocky panache on display in July’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Combined with director James Gray’s fearless manipulation of time and perspective, Pitt’s performance communicates a psyche that, while guardedly taciturn, threatens to combust at any moment, overcome with an isolation and longing that are aggravated by the film’s stark setting.
Gray, the visual effects team and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema — an expert craftsman of galactic imagery à la “Interstellar” — construct an environment that, though literally infinite in scope, feels claustrophobic and oppressive. Just as the lack of gravity and the duration of his travels leave Roy loosely tethered to reality, brave editing choices, dizzying shot composition and mood-warping lighting will leave audiences turned around and disoriented in the best possible way upon leaving the theater.
That is to say, “Ad Astra” is certainly not for everyone. Though it’s been marketed as an adrenaline-fueled space adventure, it is rather a pensive meditation on love and absence that uses expert visuals and sound composition — including a gorgeously eerie score by Max Richter — to convey the inner turmoil of its protagonist. So when the occasional small-scale action scene shows up with the intent of enlivening what some will perceive as a dull film, it instead comes off as out-of-place and desperate.
Still, for those who can appreciate a slow-burning, beautifully acted character study featuring top-notch talent both in front of and behind the camera, “Ad Astra” has more than enough to satisfy. It will challenge the attentive viewer to consider what is of greatest value to them, and whether it truly matters in the grand, cosmic scheme of things.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and a founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.