We all remember how exciting it was when you got to visit your mum and dad at work, right? James Gray’s thoughtful, introspective and quietly engrossing sci-fi meditation “Ad Astra” sets out to explore the bond between father and son when stretched onto an inhumanly cosmic scale.
When a mysterious pulse from the edge of the solar system causes widespread disruption on Earth, the authorities fear it may be the harbinger of even worse effects which could extinguish all known life in the solar system. Believing the energy pulses are connected to the long-lost Lima Project which vanished sixteen years earlier, US Space Command turns to astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), son of legendary H Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and leader of the Lima Project, to try to discover the source of the power surges.
In many ways, “Ad Astra” is a virtual remake of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, except with Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride as HAL and a yearning for parental love and acceptance as its monolith and along the way, writer/ director James Gray borrows liberally from “Solaris”, “Gravity“, “Interstellar” and even “Mission To Mars”. Like Kubrick’s sci-fi opus, “Ad Astra” is rich in casual details of the imagined near future practicalities of spaceflight and, superficially at least, seems to share the 1969 classic’s distinct lack of emotion. However, therein lies the rub because it does a gross disservice to the phenomenally understated performance delivered by Pitt as the son searching across the unfathomable distances of the solar system for a father long thought lost to him. Pitt brings an achingly authentic, internalised intensity to McBride, contained in the subtlest of expressions and a nuanced physicality that holds the entire film together.
James Gray certainly delivers on the visuals required for this kind of prestige space opera and while the character work is top-notch, the film does often let the surrounding details of the world-building blur to frustrating indistinctness at times. There are also a couple of action beats which feel awkwardly tacked on and you have to wonder if they were part of the original vision or the manifestation of some C-suite jitters over the prospects of a sober and cerebral sci-fi film in the current box office climate.
In the end, though, Pitt and Gray conspire to deliver an absorbingly introspective look at what it means to be human on a scale both familial and cosmic and finds a curious optimism and hopeful message in its bluntness about the vast, cold indifference of space by suggesting that the incomprehensible distances between the distant points of light in the sky are the very reason why its important to form meaningful connections with those your closest to – your fellow humans.