Film & TV

Space-Travel Odyssey ‘Ad Astra’ Reflects on the Human Condition

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Writer and director James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is equal parts character study and sci-fi epic, exploring both the physical and emotional isolation of its astronaut protagonist.

Set in a bleak take on the near-future, the film stars Brad Pitt (“Fight Club,” “The Big Short”) as astronaut Roy McBride, son of legendary U.S. Space Command astronaut and leader of the fictional Lima Project H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).

It’s been 26 years since the Lima Project was formed to scour the solar system for signs of intelligent life, and 16 since the project’s ship and entire crew went missing somewhere in Neptune’s orbit.

Clifford and his crew have long been presumed dead, but Space Command officials reconsider when they link a worldwide series of deadly electric surges back to the Lima Project’s experiments. They enlist Roy to try and contact his father, who may be alive and purposely avoiding detection.

Roy agrees to Space Command’s terms and finds himself suiting up to leave Earth the way he’s done his whole career.

“Ad Astra,” released Sept. 20, might not actually be a realistic depiction of space travel, but its rule-defined and unflinchingly logical approach is so plausible it might as well be a documentary on the subject.

Roy’s complicated journey through this detail-oriented world drives the plot, but the film finds its true merit in simplicity. 

Roy is numb to the bureaucracy and safeguarding of Space Command’s operations. He’s a machine, powering through psychological exams, ignoring repetitive safety videos and sporting a heart rate that has never risen above 80 beats per minute.

Roy’s character is defined by his ability to robotically excel in the structure around him. His interstellar expertise ­and introspective narration make the film’s complex trappings seem commonplace, reducing the need for expository dialogue.

Gray’s earnest screenplay paints Roy with plenty of emotional depth, but Pitt communicates more with his eyes than any screenplay could. Bearing a hollow fake smile and perfect posture, Pitt carries the weight of loneliness and labor spanning years inside his pupils and along his brow, expressing more with his mannerisms than his words.

Gray understands the talent he’s been blessed with in Pitt, and the film reflects this. Other characters linger on the margins, but the film laser-focuses on Pitt. Roy’s separated wife Eve (Liv Tyler) is his only human tie to Earth, and she’s reduced to a hazy memory by the void Roy faces.

As Roy navigates the stars, he reflects on his current position in life and his relationship with his father.

When the Lima Project left Earth, Roy was a teenager. By the time he found out his father wouldn’t return, he was a grown man. Now in his 40s, Roy must confront the possibility that his father wasn’t taken from him but instead chose not to come back.

After Clifford disappeared, he shifted from a real figure in Roy’s life to a security blanket. His heroism motivated Roy’s career path and his tragic presumed death was easier for Roy to cope with than the possibility of abandonment. 

For decades, Roy has used these justifications to ignore the painfully obvious. He always wanted more from his father, even before his mission lifted off.

At two hours and four minutes long, Gray’s film is a masterpiece of pacing. “Ad Astra” handles the material of a much longer film without rushing and employs a contemplative pace without drawing things out.

The film takes a densely classical approach to its genre with great success, utilizing hard scientific logic to tell a cosmic adventure story spanning years, but this isn’t where its main appeal lies.

“Ad Astra” understands the appeal of futuristic space travel and knowing the unknowable, but lots of films do. It’s the film’s ability to connect its fictional concept to such innate human concerns that makes “Ad Astra” so special.

“Ad Astra,” rated PG-13, is playing in theaters nationwide.

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