Writer-director James Gray follows up his criminally-underrated The Lost City of Z with a film that may just top it. Ad Astra sends Brad Pitt hurtling through space, interspersing peerless set pieces with character study, introspection, and societal commentary. No 2019 film has aspired to such awe-inspiring heights. No film in years has aspired to such heights and surpassed them.
Famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) leaves his wife and young son to captain the Lima Project, a mission to the outer reaches of the Solar System with the goal of contacting extraterrestrial life. Years later, the crew is presumed dead, as communications have gone unanswered in the sixteen years since the team arrived at their destination near Neptune.
Meanwhile, a series of power surges are causing deaths and destruction on Earth; the surges are emanating from a source near Neptune. U.S. Space Command (or SpaceCom, a mustache-twirling version of NASA) recruits astronaut Roy McBride, Clifford’s son, to investigate his father’s behavior and end the surges.
Though heavily reliant on computer-generated imagery, Ad Astra is the most breathtakingly stunning movie since Blade Runner 2049. The production design crew designed a list of wonders that includes multiple practical spacecraft, wholly original planetary bases, and a colossal mechanical communications array worthy of the film’s dazzling celestial backdrop. Scenes featuring the surface of the moon and Neptune’s rings are so luxurious that they nearly distract from the innovative and stupefying set pieces that take place there.
In only 124 minutes, Ad Astra makes time to subtly address consumerism and ruminate on humanity’s proclivity for war. Regardless of the setting, it’s same shit, different day for mankind. Gray, picking up where he left off with The Lost City of Z, has made a movie about fatherhood and the balance between family and career, but themes of masculinity and our place among the stars stand out above all else.
Pitt, giving a quiet, nuanced, and career-defining performance, explores these ideas solo for a majority of the runtime. Without a co-star to further the plot, movies tend to stagnate, but Gray keeps Ad Astra in flight with infrequent-but-jaw-dropping action, the ethereal, beatific setting, and a (sometimes overbearing) voiceover. Carrying a movie without a second lead requires a movie-star performance, and Pitt, at 55, is charismatic but controlled. He won’t, but he should win Best Actor for this role.
Eve (Liv Tyler), Roy’s ex-wife, pulls the astronaut back to Earth, giving a serene and heavenly film an emotional core. Jones is a more than capable foil for Pitt, and the adept Ruth Negga and ineffable Donald Sutherland exist on the periphery as Helen, the director of a Mars base, and Thomas, a former crewmate of Clifford, respectably. Natasha Lyonne has a disorienting, type-cast cameo as a flamboyant administrative worker in a role that takes away from the final product.
A taxing narration and off-tone casting aren’t enough to ground Ad Astra. The film’s title comes from the Latin phrase, “Per aspera ad astra,” meaning “through hardships to the stars.” With Gray’s latest masterpiece, he seems to have reached them.