In James Gray’s new odyssey, space travel is a commercialised, militarised venture. Humans make flights to the moon on a routine basis (paying the requisite $125 dollars for a blanket and pillow), and astronauts are no longer figures of aspiration, but placid drones of the austere ‘Space Command’. The last of the old kind was Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared many years ago on a mission to search for life beyond our solar system.
Brad Pitt plays his son, Roy, a disillusioned and somewhat dead-to-the-world veteran of wars both planetside and interstellar. When an unknown natural phenomenon known as ‘The Surge’ causes havoc across the world, Roy must journey to Neptune – Clifford’s last known location – for answers.
On the surface, Ad Astra appears to be forming an orderly queue with Gravity, The Martian and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – slick, mainstream outer-space movies with a focus on familial separation and the terrifying, five-steps-from-death reality of interplanetary flight. Gray’s film covers those key themes and then some, but closer collation can be drawn with the hypnotic visual grace of Blade Runner 2049 or the introspective darkness of Claire Denis’ High Life.
Don’t hold out for spectacle – this is eerie, self-examining sci-fi where grand adventure plays second fiddle to quiet character drama. The film places its biggest set piece at the beginning; The Surge rippling through a space station on the edge of the atmosphere, explosions tearing through it and sending astronauts (Roy included) spinning helplessly to Earth. Then there’s a brief, heart-thudding Fury Road-style Moon buggy chase before any and all action sequences funnel towards the quietest possible climax.
Comparisons to 2001 are always unavoidable, particularly with this very specific premise. Ad Astra’s opening shot perverts the wondrous optimism of Kubrick’s star-child approaching Earth, with Max Richter’s score emulating the THX deep note effect in a depressive episode. “It is a time of hope and conflict” reads a short opening title sequence – the former is in short supply, and the latter is unending.
Not least the internal struggles of Roy, whose journey towards Neptune is dogged by guilt, self-doubt and daddy issues. Pummelled into a kind of sleepwalk by years of psychological evaluations, it’s only the promise of seeing his father again that breaks Roy – Brad Pitt on extraordinary, star power-cementing form – from his stupor. Forced to co-operate with a myriad of other astronauts – supporting roles for Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland and others are minimal, bordering on negligible – who all speak and act and think the same, he dryly observes, “They’re at ease with themselves…what must that be like?”
Above the threat of shady SpaceCom politics, dune buggy-riding marauders and the infinite abyss, Roy’s greatest fear is all-too relatable: answers. Why bother leaving the bounds of Earth when you can do it with a prepaid package deal? What have we lost when a lunar landing is conducted with the humdrum nonchalance of parallel parking? What if my father really is a monster? When it comes to offering a palatable response, Ad Astra may not satisfy all. That a film so contemplative and ambiguous is given the broadest canvas (and necessary multiplex release) to do so at all is a minor miracle.
Ad Astra is released in the UK on 18 September.
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