Ad Astra movie review: A gorgeous space odyssey

Ad Astra is a gorgeous journey through the solar system that focuses more on character than adventure.

Ad Astra is a movie that takes place mostly in outer space but doesn’t rely heavily on visuals or world-building sci-fi to sell itself. Sure, there are elements of both in the movie – but it’s largely a conceptual, emotionally focused picture that sees Brad Pitt’s character making a solitary journey across the solar system in search of his missing father. It’s never quite clear where the film is going until it’s already there, just like a real space voyage might be, and this is one worth taking.

Pitt’s Roy McBride is an astronaut who has learned to compartmentalize his crippling personal life from his work. His marriage crumbles (his wife is played by Liv Tyler) as he prioritizes locating his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing decades ago on a voyage to Neptune in search of the key to the continuation of human survival. There are random energy surges with destructive power that begin happening on Earth and across the solar system – the opening scene features a space shuttle being destroyed by one such blast, and a breathtaking extended tracking shot as McBride hurtles through the atmosphere from space to the Earth’s surface.

Due to his father’s teachings, though, he maintains composure, and his heart rate never spikes even during a fall like that. It’s that borderline sociopathic quality of his that makes him the best candidate for following his father’s rocket trail across the solar system to find the source of these explosions. The somber, cerebral space odyssey resembles 2013’s Oscar sweeper Gravity in tone – finding intimacy and connection while suspended in the cold, endless void of outer space. Pitt’s portrayal embodies emotions breaking through the cold façade of a man taught to never show them – he’s a warm light in an icy cold atmosphere.

If it’s like Gravity or Solaris in emotion, it’s more like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in content. There are a few action scenes scattered about, including a random moon buggy shootout on the surface of the moon and the exploration of a seemingly abandoned shuttle sending out an SOS signal. They’ll get audience’s adrenaline pumping but accomplish little else – in a film so character focused they can’t help but think director James Gray included them to beef up the trailer or keep audiences engaged. Pitt is enchanting, but not every frame can be a closeup on his face, after all – even when his character is constantly reminding himself he won’t rely on anyone but anything other than himself.

That’s true of the rest of the cast as well. Tyler, Jones, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga come and go sparingly as characters in peripheral roles – but really they’re just helping McBride continue his journey, internally and externally. Summer 2019 has been a great one for Pitt – he starred in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and now he’s put forth some of his best work in years here. The entire adventure builds toward a third-act confrontation more jaw dropping than the visual effects as McBride fires a space blaster or clings to the outside of a launching spaceship, thanks to Pitt. Sometimes the answers we seek are always just out of reach.