SCI-FI DRAMA; 2hr 2min
STARRING: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler
Astronauts are a paradox of daring and containment, their lives collateral in the expansion of our horizons. In the near future of writer-director James Gray’s Ad Astra (from the Latin Per aspera ad astra: “Through hardship to the stars”), those horizons have been exponentially expanded to the solar system’s far reaches. Major Roy McBride (an existentially weary Pitt) has been despatched there on an urgent mission that is a classic dichotomy of personal and political. Earth is being threatened by cataclysmic electrical fallout from radioactive blasts (that would be the political bit). Meanwhile, authorities have determined that Roy’s father, lionised astronaut Clifford McBride (Jones), who vanished when Roy was 16 while on his own mission in search of extra-terrestrial life and has long been presumed dead, is likely alive and lying low in the neighbourhood of Neptune. In a double whammy that caps the P in personal, Clifford could also be behind the damaging episodes.
“What happened to my Dad?...Was he always broken?” wonders Roy in the reflective voice-over that knits Gray and Ethan Gross’s cerebral screenplay together. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema renders space as a barren dreamscape of impenetrable depth through which the astronauts roam in their monolithic ships like displaced buccaneers, touching down on a colonised Moon and Mars as routinely as hopping off a plane.
But it’s the psychological landscape of Roy’s inner life, and the way it mirrors the profound solitude into which he escapes, that primarily concerns Gray. A model of professional grace under pressure, in his unhappy otherness and wariness of intimacy (Tyler appears briefly as his forlorn wife, Eve), Roy is a casualty of his father’s emotional neglect. In that sense, whatever awaits him on his journey to the outermost limits has been also within him for years.