James Gray might be the most underrated director in America. He's a master and his first foray into science-fiction is more proof. Ad Astra, or "to the stars," is an original, hopeful journey not unlike Apocalypse Now, except, you know, in space. Brad Pitt embarks on a journey to save mankind and find his father, who may be a galactic Colonel Kurtz. From enthralling scene to enthralling scene, Ad Astra leads us into the terrifying darkness (and a possible future). It's the space adventure of 2019.
Pitt, already a 2019 star thanks to a speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick role in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in America this summer, shines again in Gray's space opera. He tackles the material so effortlessly it's hard to believe he's not really in the moment. A film veteran of over 30 years at this point, Pitt is only getting better — I'd pay to seem him in anything.
Pitt tackles the role of Major Roy McBride in Ad Astra, an astronaut in the future who's nearly killed when Earth is struck by power surge near the beginning of the story. It's not the only surge and more could mean the end of the world. SpaceCom reveals the surges are coming from a previous mission on Neptune led by Roy's father, the legendary H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who lost contact 16 years earlier but now may be alive. Roy, eager to find Dad, heads to Mars with Donald Sutherland in tow as Clifford's old friend, Pruitt.
Of course, things don't go well. Admirably, Gray upends expectations at every turn. Written by Gray and Ethan Gross, the Ad Astra script is a glorious combination of authentic space adventure and weird sci-fi excursions. An underground base on Mars is introduced, as is Ruth Negga, who plays Helen, a native of the Red Planet. Also, baboons appear in villainous roles, Moon pirates are a very real thing, and the film manages to create peril via increasingly more creative outer space details. This is a sci-fi film full of actual sci-fi.
Ad Astra also takes place almost exclusively away from Earth. Gray and lenser Hoyte Van Hoytema paint a stunningly realistic vision of space that echoes urgency and danger. Fans of Gravity and Interstellar (also shot by Van Hoytema) will see Ad Astra for what it is — the next step in sci-fi filmmaking. It's also a cautionary tale, but one full of hope. Space seems to be nothing but trouble for humans yet we keep exploring. The film even presents a doomsday scenario brought about by our own hubris. Gray give us the dangers, yet still finds something worth fighting for by the film's end.