Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent by United States Space Command to Mars to make contact with his father, fellow astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared many years ago and is believed to be behind a mysterious energy surge emanating from Neptune. While on his journey, Roy is confronted with the realities of his relationship with his father, and his own personal life as well.
When it comes to movies that float through the cosmos, how writers, directors and actors manage to make it connect with audiences is by shrinking it down to a deep, human level. 'First Man', for example, followed the story of a grieving father who buried himself in his work as a means of dealing with the pain. 'Solaris', both the Tarkovsky original and Soderbergh's remake, deals with how second chances in relationships aren't always what we hope of them. 'Interstellar', for all of its issues, was comprised of a father trying desperately to return to his children.
'Ad Astra' works the other way, with a son trying to reach out to his father, and in doing so, reach out to himself. The movie opens with Brad Pitt's character calmly describing himself in a pleasing monotone voice, exactly what you'd expect an astronaut to sound like. The opening moments of the movie involve a catastrophe aboard a space station, all of which Pitt's character handles with the kind of assured nature you'd expect. Yet, what makes 'Ad Astra' such a compelling movie and such a deeply resonant story, is that while Pitt's character might have all the skills and answers, his internal life - that is, his emotional life - is in complete ruins.
Pitt's skills as an actor are often eclipsed by his looks and his star power, but in 'Ad Astra', these complement the performance as much as anything can. In each scene with new characters, he's introduced as the son of a hero, that by extension he himself is one, and while he smiles and handles it well, he always has his eyes on the exit. Moreover, when he talks about his failing relationship with Liv Tyler's character, it's done with such authenticity and understated complexity that you'd nearly believe he was accessing his own life and talking about his divorce from Angelina Jolie. It's as raw and real as anything he's done in years, and puts him out as a strong contender for all the Best Actor accolades come awards season.
The supporting cast, including Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and later Tommy Lee Jones, all comport themselves well and deliver on each scene they're given, but it's as much Pitt's show as it is Gray's writing and direction that pulls this all together. There's a confidence in each scene and each line that makes it all so considered but never feels like the pace is slipping or that it's lingering any longer than it needs to. Rather, 'Ad Astra' takes its structure from the likes of 'Apocalypse Now', with Pitt moving from place to place, further from Earth and deeper into the understanding of both his father and where humanity will eventually end up among the stars.
Hoyte van Hotema's cinematography is rich with colour and depth, and its targeted use of digital effects means that you never pulled out of the story. The scale is massive, sure, but it has a texture and grain to it that gives it a solid-state. Not only that, Max Richter and Lorne Balfe's music adds to each and every scene without it becoming overbearing. It elevates the operatic visuals and the emotional resonance from the incredible acting by all concerned.
At just a little over two hours, and with the kind of satisfying ending that it has, 'Ad Astra' strives to match the personal with the poetic, the grandeur of space with the uncomfortable reality of human frailty, and to do all of this while making a movie that people would actually want to see. It achieves all of these, and then some more you weren't necessarily expecting. It's expressive, yet restrained. It's a psychological thriller, yet also a family drama, and all of it told with sci-fi trappings. It's as rich in meaning and depth as you can get from this kind of cast, with this kind of budget, in the current cinematic landscape.
Easily one of the best movies of 2019.