Brad Pitt never looked more beautiful than in this mesmeric, flawed, superbly photographed and designed space adventure from director and co-writer James Gray. Pitt plays an astronaut in what is tantalisingly described as the “near future” and Gray’s camera traces the scorched and incised surfaces of distant planets with the same awe that it travels across Brad’s face, savouring the lattice of tiny wrinkles around the eyes, and the discreet harvest of his one-day stubble.
Gray’s direction, like Pitt’s performance, is fiercely intended and intricately controlled and the resulting movie has some of the epic and Conradian qualities of his last film, The Lost City of Z – though with a more satisfying structure and story arc, and with more exciting set pieces. It is, perhaps, a little derivative and maybe finally fudges the dark mystery of the quest’s end point. But this is a film with thrilling ambition and reach.
Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut impeccably cool under pressure, and with a dedication to the job that has perhaps cost him his marriage to Eve (a mute and largely flashback-centred cameo for Liv Tyler). Roy is, moreover, the son of revered astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who taught his boy the values of hard work and emotional self-control, and who became legendary on the news of his death decades ago while heading up a pioneer exploratory project near Neptune. Roy demonstrates his own sang-froid while repairing a rig the height of seven skyscrapers, which begins to shudder under the impact of a terrifying power surge, until McBride free-climbs out to shut off the voltage: a quite stunning opening sequence.
His superiors consider that now is the moment to tell Roy that his father may still be alive, having somehow gone rogue or gone native in deep space, and is causing these terrifyingly dangerous surges. It is now Roy’s mission to voyage out there and confront his father. His own emotional blankness begins to disappear as the truth of his father’s existence begins to dawn, along with a suspicion that his superiors are not telling him the whole story.
Ad Astra (from the Latin tag “per ardua ad astra” or “through struggle to the stars”) is a spectacular, immersive picture, offering an intelligent and deeply considered variation on existing themes. Obviously, there is something of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with Roy making a terrifying upriver journey to sacrifice or “terminate the command” of this patriarch-god – or is it his own command he’s going to terminate? The syntax and grammar of space travel on film owes something to Kubrick’s 2001, a film importantly conceived when space discovery was a matter of imminent fact, not fantasy, though Gray has his own distinctive vision. There’s a witty and shrewd depiction of the moon as extensively colonised and commercialised, like a banal shopping centre.