A title card at the beginning of James Gray’s strange, hypnotic space adventure Ad Astra, playing in competition here at the Venice Film Festival, tells us that the story we’re about to watch is set in the near future, when humanity has decided to look to the stars for intelligent life, evidently finding the cupboards bare at home. To reveal whether or not that life is found would give away too much of Ad Astra, and it would be missing the point, anyway: This story, co-written by James and Ethan Gross, is as much about the alien life inside us as it is about space exploration. Sometimes our feelings can be like foreign invaders, unwelcome in the narrative we’re trying to write for ourselves.
That’s certainly true of the hero and centrifugal center of Ad Astra, stoic astronaut Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt. Roy is descended from spaceman royalty: His father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was part of the first team to make it to Neptune, and allegedly, he died there—or that’s what the U.S. government told Roy and his mother, leaving them to feel bereft and abandoned. Roy has followed in his father’s footsteps, determined to be the best astronaut he can be. He survives a terrible fall from a space antenna that’s literally sky-high, after risking his life to flip its voltage switch during a massive, mysterious electrical storm. He calmly takes control of a ship when its commander freezes. He makes every attempt to save a colleague who’s been attacked by an angry critter. No matter how nerve-jangling the task, Roy carries it off with aplomb: He’s got space balls to spare.
The only things Roy can’t handle are his own feelings: He wrestles with unresolved daddy issues, and he appears to have driven away the woman he loves. (She’s played, in a muted story thread, by Liv Tyler.) Meanwhile, Roy prepares for each day of his challenging job by making authoritative declarations about his mental state, like, “I will not rely on anyone or anything, I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.” We know, even if he doesn’t, that that kind of manly-man certitude is a recipe for disaster. And when the government uses Roy as its pawn—sending him on a mission that includes locating his possibly-not-dead father and defusing the cosmic disturbance that’s causing those end-of-the-world caliber electrical storms—he begins to question his no-feelings-allowed approach to his work, as well as his loyalty to his employer. An explosion, it seems, is imminent.
At times, Ad Astra is way too obvious about its aims. Roy’s voiceover proclamations—all those riffs on how he doesn’t need no feelings, no way, no how—sometimes sound like the scribblings you might find in a shrink’s notes. And yet somehow, Ad Astra works, not least because nearly every minute of it is gorgeous to look at: Gray and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema, used Kodak images from Apollo missions 11 through 17 as inspiration—the movie’s visuals are halfway between dreams of space and the silvery, shivery majesty of the real thing. And even if Ad Astra doesn’t have the mystical power of Gray’s last film, the magisterial Lost City of Z (based on David Grann’s book of the same name), it has enough magnetic pull to keep us close.
It doesn’t hurt that Gray is one of the finest movie craftspeople we’ve got: He stages a glorious hand-to-hand combat scene in zero gravity, turning it into a floating, brutal ballet. There’s one moment of genuine terror—an event we glimpse only from behind—so delicately handled that it might pop up in your nightmares. Gray knows that implied visions are often the ones that creep into your brain to stay. And for all Ad Astra’s ultra-seriousness, Gray can’t resist a witty touch here and there, particularly his casting of Natasha Lyonne, with her great flapper eyes, as a woman who sits behind a desk and basically says, “Welcome to Mars!” He can be acidic, too: He shows us a future-moon that’s been turned into a Lunar Mall of America. When we humans run out of beautiful, natural spaces on our own planet, why not just move on to the closest astronomical body?
Engaging actors show up in small roles: Ruth Negga plays a fellow government employee who, like Roy, has been orphaned by space exploration, and she manages to crack open a window in his crypt of self-absorption. Donald Sutherland shows up as a veteran astronaut who just can’t quit the space thing: Even his long, wily eyebrows flare up and out, as if reaching toward the stars. But it’s Pitt who must carry most of the movie, and he makes Roy’s particular brand of self-torture effortlessly believable: It’s not the weight of the world he’s got on his shoulders, it’s the weight of space, and that’s got to be heavier. Pitt seems to be growing more weathered, and more beautiful, with each role. Gray and Van Hoytema make the most of that beauty, bringing the camera in close to survey his cheekbone contours, his haunted-lake eyes, the vegetation of his blondish beard whiskers, as if they were mapping the geography of a new planet. He survives the scrutiny. And he helps guide Ad Astra to a landing you don’t quite expect; the movie ends in a place of self-forgiveness that feels earned. Late in the film, Roy rounds his way to the movie’s most poetic line: “We’re all we’ve got.” At last, he’s gotten the message. People who need people aren’t the luckiest people in the world. They’re the only ones.