Feeling like an exquisitely blended concoction of Apocalypse Now and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (with, perhaps, a dash of 2001), writer-director James Gray’s spooky and stunning Ad Astra is a heady, mind-trip of a film—a slow-burn anchored by what may be Brad Pitt’s most compelling work to date. (Between this and July’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the fella is having quite the year.)

Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut “in the near future”, whose father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) was sent on a mission to the far reaches of the solar system decades earlier in the search for intelligent life. After presuming him dead these past sixteen years, US SpaceCom is now having second thoughts after a series of massive, deadly power surges erupt from near Neptune, where Clifford was last located.

The logical course of action is, naturally, to send Roy on a mission to figure out what’s going on and find a way to stop his dad before the Earth is destroyed. After hopping on a commercial flight to the moon (now populated by strip malls and pirate-led raiding parties), Roy heads on to Mars and then Neptune to find answers. Along the way, Gray gives us as compelling a space opera as possible, considering it’s largely a one-man show as Roy wrestles with his own demons while also struggling to uncover those of his father—all while keeping a smooth-sailing outer veneer. (We’re told his pulse never exceeds 80bpm, even when he hurtles toward certain death.)

Watching Ad Astra may make it hard to remember a time when Pitt was largely considered a pretty face with questionable talent (Meet Joe Black, anyone?). It’s clear now that those days are as far in the rearview mirror as Earth itself in the wake of Roy’s rocket. Pitt may, in fact, be one of the more solid, reliable actors working today, and though his understated and finely tuned work here may not be in-your-face enough to warrant much award consideration, it is more than enough to make the film a fascinating and ultimately captivating study of one man’s brittle psyche.

Beyond the nuanced character work, Ad Astra earns high marks for Kevin Thompson’s production design, cinematography by the great Hoyte van Hoytema (InterstellarDunkirk), and for Gray, best known for adapting and directing 2016’s The Lost City of Z. Before filming even began, he told Collider, “What I’m trying to do is the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie and to basically say, ‘Space is awfully hostile to us.’”

Alongside the likes of Gravity and 2009’s MoonAd Astra indeed offers a harrowing (often downright terrifying) study of life among the stars, where solitude is as dangerous as anything else you might come across but where thoughts of family may be the only hope.


4.5/5 stars