In its 1950s populist infancy, science-fiction cinema was relatively simple and straightforward. Lantern-jawed men of action brandishing ray guns would vanquish rubbery monsters, occasionally – and obliquely – referencing the Cold War or the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era, but with the accent firmly on rip-roaring yarns familiar to pirate or cowboy movies.
Then came Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, and for the ensuing half-century the lot of the astronaut has been increasingly portrayed as green-screened ruminations on existential angst. Who are we? Where are we going? What will we do when we get there? Actually, the original Planet of the Apes (released two months earlier in 1968) could arguably lay claim to kick-starting an obsession with identity and belonging, but with the savvy to couch it in an audience-friendly, beginning-middle-and-end thrill-ride. But it was Kubrick’s detailed imagery, lengthy silences and obtuse narrative that truly reinvented sci-fi as a form of intergalactic therapy.
While there will always be a welcome in the fleapit for the derring-do of traditional go-it-alone movie heroism (Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Matt Damon in The Martian), the genre has a parallel, perhaps overbearing fascination with introspection and/or the origin of the species, and Ad Astra sets out to have its cosmic cake and eat it.
Brad Pitt, as Major Roy McBride, is clearly old-fashioned hero material, and on the surface (or above it, seeing as he’s in space) his voyage bears many of the hallmarks of a by-the-book rescue mission. However, the existence-threatening electrical surges he’s sent to investigate may well have been created by his father (Tommy Lee Jones), “lost” from an earlier top-secret mission to find extra-terrestrial life.
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Already, the catch-all shorthand “Apocalypse Now in space” has been applied to Ad Astra in several early reviews, and while it’s tempting to draw parallels between two generations of McBrides and Martin Sheen heading for a showdown with Marlon Brando in an inhospitable Asian jungle, it runs the risk of overlooking director James Gray’s own lofty ambitions. There’s no shortage of adventure in the form of gunfights, lunar car chases, interplanetary outlaws or out-of-this-world creatures, all of which provide exciting diversions, but there’s also satirical commentary on the growing commercialism of trips to the stars, as well as the cerebral pondering of, say, Interstellar or the Alien prequels, and the more down-to-earth familial estrangement subplot has echoes of Field of Dreams (you can probably add Jodie Foster’s daddy issues in 1997’s Contact to the pot as well).
Occasionally, it feels like Gray is trying to shoehorn too much into two hours of screen time. The narrative might have been better served as a mini-series with standalone episodes, although that would have run the risk of diluting the arc of the film’s big questions about humanity. As it stands, the movie’s primary concern is arguably one man’s emotional journey, filtered through endless close-ups of Pitt’s steely expressions.
That’s not to denigrate the leading man’s performance in any way, as his portrayal of McCoy is genuinely affecting, even when it appears he’s not doing much at all. It’s reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s turn as Neil Armstrong on 2018’s First Man, and in what has been a high watermark year for Pitt, the character’s intimate and serious flipside to the dusty-denim breeziness of his role in Once upon a Time… in Hollywood might just result in two Oscar nominations.
Frustratingly, though, the focus on McCoy junior as he crosses 2.7 billion miles of space means the supporting cast tends to be underwritten. Donald Sutherland’s grizzled Colonel Pruitt, riding shotgun for part of the mission, makes his presence felt a little, but there’s not much for Liv Tyler to sink her teeth into as Roy’s earthbound wife.
It’s down to Pitt’s undeniable charisma to carry the human element, assisted hugely by the dazzling visuals of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and the thought-provoking screenplay from Gray and Ethan Gross. The latter may veer perilously close to navel-gazing at times, but always finds its way back to something more tangibly gutsy, a fine balancing act between philosophical chin-stroker and popcorn-chomping crowd-pleaser.
Ad Astra is released in cinemas on Friday 20th September