Ad Astra lays claim to the title of “best space film of the decade”
Note from the editors: This article contains potential spoilers.
Ad Astra, the seventh film by underrated filmmaker James Gray, tells the story of Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut whose heart rate has never exceeded 80 beats per minute across any of his life-threatening missions. At the beginning of the film he is so emotionally unavailable that he must go to outer space to find and traverse a realized construction of his inner life. He goes into space looking for his father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the pioneer of U.S. Space Command. Clifford went missing while on a mission searching for extraterrestrial life, abandoning Roy and his mother for decades. SpaceCom, however, has discovered that he is actually alive on the far side of Neptune — and the experiments he’s conducting could be consequential for all known life. They send Roy, who stops at stations on the Moon and Mars, to attempt communication. Unsure if he is trying to find his father or to free himself from him, Roy travels farther and farther from the sun to places only his father has gone before.
In two hours, Gray constructs an epic, with acute introspection played out against the largest possible expanse. In juxtaposition to his great physical and emotional distance from his father, Roy’s journey begins extraordinarily close-up. Every pore, every rooted hair, every texture, every reflection of light on his face is captured in the film grain, creating a sense of intimacy carried throughout the film that nothing in Pitt’s career has previously approached. Nuanced and contemplative, Pitt’s performance displays a remarkable openness. As Roy ventures farther from earth and further outside himself, the film incorporates increasingly astonishing realizations of his, and our, outer space, keeping its frame gravitationally fixed on the narrative’s essential images. Completely character-focused in perhaps the most visually stunning manner possible, the film’s underlying arthouse identity does not preclude visits from grounded pulp flourishes (including moon pirates, marauding baboons, and a knife fight in zero gravity). In addition to a score by Max Richter, the film is strikingly accompanied by the nearly constant noise of Roy’s steady breathing inside his suit.
Inviting comparisons to Interstellar, Ad Astra does resemble a version of that film, but one with twice its thematic sophistication, quality of characterization, and narrative grasp. It stands solidly as the best space film of the decade.