Film Review: Ad Astra Is a Gorgeous Interstellar Descent Into an Amoral Universe

The Pitch: In a near-future world where Earth has colonized Mars and the Moon, catastrophe strikes in the form of mysterious energy surges emanating from space that, if left unchecked, will escalate until they tear the entire solar system apart. The real culprit, however, is H. Cameron McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut long thought dead on a long-range mission to search for alien life in the universe.

Gone native on the outer edge of Neptune, the surges may be coming from McBride’s long-lost spacecraft, and he’s not answering any hails. To stop the surges and save the planet, McBride’s son Roy (Brad Pitt) – a stoic, buttoned-up astronaut who followed in his father’s space boots – is tasked with traveling to Mars to send a personal entreaty to his father. But Roy’s journey may take him all the way to the furthest reaches of the solar system, not to mention the darkest depths of his own psyche.

James Gray of all people is a fascinating prospect. A contemplative arthouse filmmaker known for sumptuous, layered period dramas like The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z, Gray’s outlook is pensive, unsubtle, and deeply ambitious. Ad Astra, it’s a delight to say, is quintessential Gray, and if that’s your flavor of storytelling, seeing his darkly psychological outlook painted onto an Interstellar-like quest into deep space, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Comparisons to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now abound, of course — it’s a dreamlike odyssey to reason with (or, if that doesn’t work, kill) a man gone mad on the edge of civilization, after all. But Ad Astra also functions as a spiritual sequel to Lost City of Z, a tale of father and son struggling to maintain their sanity in the wilderness. Gray’s brooding, Oedipal sensibilities are expanded in scope from the Amazon to man’s place in the universe, and it’s a genuine thrill to see his intimate, intricate concerns played out over such a vast interstellar stage.

Hoyte Van Hoytema solidifies his status as one of our best cinematographers for capturing the horrifying majesty of the stars, and the loneliness that comes with exploring them.