There’s a moment late in Ad Astra, writer-director James Gray’s foray into the void of both inner and outer space, where a wildly spinning Brad Pitt ruminates on the struggle of being alive. As the stars swirl around him, Pitt’s Major Roy McBride wonders why we go on despite the cruel indifference of the universe, despite the futility of fighting against what seems to be inevitable. That question is the core of Gray’s astonishing film, one that recognizes the overwhelming weight of hopelessness and the triumph of finding the will to lift that burden from your shoulders.
On the surface, Ad Astra might seem to be shamelessly cribbing from a wide swath of sci-fi movie monoliths, all the way from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Following Pitt’s emotionally closed-off McBridge as he ventures to the edges of the solar system in search of his long-thought-to-be-dead father (Tommy Lee Jones), many have joked about the film’s place in the burgeoning “sad dads in space” genre, where typically male directors use the emptiness of what lies beyond our atmosphere to hash out their daddy issues on a grand scale. Gray isn’t entirely innocent of buying into that trope, but the end result is about much more than the consequences of dealing with absent patriarchs.
Make no mistake, Ad Astra is still a rousing, often kinetic piece of sci-fi entertainment filled with some of the most riveting bits of space action in modern memory. From a Mad Max-like chase across the far side of the Moon to a gnarly, surprisingly scary sequence upon a Norwegian space station, Gray proves himself more than capable of pairing his philosophical vision with exciting displays of astronaut bravura. What’s remarkable is how the more chaotic moments of the film still play into his overarching mission; Gray is aiming to craft a meditative, introspective look at the ugly monster of depression, and how those of us afflicted by even the “minor” effects of mental illness can move through the motions of our day-to-day lives bogged down by the feeling of utter defeat. The gutsier, more action-packed moments aren’t just tacked onto these ideas. They are served in a way that shows high-budget sci-fi doesn’t have to sacrifice the emotional intelligence the defines the genre in order to pull off a few good thrills as well.
The balance doesn’t work without the commitment from Pitt, who gives what very well could be the performance of his career. Pitt is in total control of his craft, elevating McBride from a stereotypically masculine, emotionally closed off hero into a multifaceted, struggling pawn trying to find his place on the chessboard. McBride is defined by his inability to escape his own crippling interiority, a persona that Pitt defines as constantly on the brink of collapse. There’s a sad honesty in Pitt’s performance, free of the movie star charm that colors his other great performance this year in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Even the film’s frequent use of narration, which some have dismissed as heavy-handed, gives Pitt a chance to convey the true depths of McBride’s anguish. It all comes together into a role that sees Pitt at the height of his powers, injecting a genuine sense of regret and quiet desperation into every scene.
Gray too finds beauty in the details, fleshing out his already solid foundation with an impressively realized world. Set in the near future, the universe of Ad Astra sees our civilization in the throes of colonizing the Moon and Mars, which Gray sees as opportunities to explore how humanity is seemingly incapable of carrying our baggage with us wherever we go. McBride laments the commercialization of the Moon, which has become an ugly reflection of our problems back home; the bases that dot the Moon’s surface are characterized by their capitalistic additions, from a lunar Applebee’s to overpriced in-flight blankets, while the untamed wilds outside the bases are ravaged by wars over claims to the land and pirates looking to scavenge from the wreckage. Mars isn’t faring much better as the lonely colonists who inhabit deal with shadowy corporate interests and the oppression of living underground. Gray’s attention to detail makes the world of Ad Astra feel startlingly relevant and all-the-more unnerving, serving as a warning of the possibilities that come with forgetting why we look to the stars in the first place.
Despite McBride’s languished world and the sorrow that comes with it, what makes Ad Astra such a vital masterpiece is its refusal to give into nihilism. The astounding third act is a moving celebration of overcoming existential dread, how the terrifying prospect of being all we have doesn’t mean we lack meaning in the universe. Anchored by some of the finest acting of Pitt’s career and Gray’s wise, ultimately humanistic outlook, the film turns into a moving plea to remember the value of being a small part of the infinite. Our despair isn’t immortal, and the fact that we only have ourselves to pull us out of it just makes the bonds between us all the more powerful.