In Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction masterpiece Solaris, a character observes that even in the depths of outer space, “we want a mirror.”
Perhaps that’s why Ad Astra—starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut in the near future who travels to Neptune to find his missing scientist father—feels like the most visually arresting session of talk therapy you’ve ever experienced. The film, co-written and directed by James Gray (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant), belongs to that outer space/inner space subgenre of sci-fi that has flourished as of late (Gravity, Interstellar, The Arrival, First Man), and has Tarkovsky’s Solaris as its granddaddy. (The trend may have been kicked off by Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Solaris with George Clooney, which is quite good.) This is another movie that zooms further in the more it zooms out.
In the decades since his father has gone missing, Pitt’s Roy McBride has largely compressed his feelings of grief and anger into a stoic professionalism. Jaw set, eyes focused, pulse never rising to an alarming pace, Roy’s stalwart demeanor has helped him rise through the ranks of SpaceCom, the United States’ governmental space agency. His psychological evaluations—during which an artificial intelligence program asks him questions about his mental state while monitoring his biometrics—are flawless. “I compartmentalize,” Roy explains in the slightly more forthcoming voiceover that runs through the film. But when Roy takes on the mission to locate his father, after SpaceCom finds evidence that he may still be alive, those psychological walls begin to break down and everything Roy has suppressed begins to come to the fore.
As a metaphor for the experience of a child who has lost a father—whether due to estrangement, death, or callous abandonment—Ad Astra is thuddingly literal. Both Roy’s answers during those psych evaluations and the voiceover dialogue could have been pulled from the transcript of an earthbound therapy session. (It might have been better if Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross had employed only one of these conceits.) By the time Roy proclaims to a superior, “I will deal with my father,” subtext has essentially become text. Imaginative viewers may find evidence that something more is going on. Enough prayers randomly pop up here and there that I suppose you could interpret Roy’s mission as a search for God, for instance. But mostly what we see is what we get: one man’s anguished attempt to come to terms with the father he never knew. (In a sharp piece of casting, the older McBride is played by the always-intimidating Tommy Lee Jones.)
Thankfully—and as should be expected from a master of mise en scene like Gray—Roy’s journey is gorgeously rendered. Working with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar, Dunkirk), Gray gives this astral canvas a severe beauty. A race among rovers on the moon—where gold highlights on helmets break the otherwise monochromatic color scheme—has the familiar otherworldliness of the car chases in Mad Max: Fury Road. When Roy makes it to an underground base camp on Mars, production designer Kevin Thompson gives us lairs of jutting, rust-colored stone. During a meeting with the base commander there (Ruth Negga), a light-simulation device keeps the room awash in moving shadows and shine. If the intent is to mimic the earthly pattern of the sun, it has the opposite effect: rather than calm us, it’s disorienting and unsteady (if mesmerizing).
Despite the presence of a few others—Negga, Jones, Liv Tyler in the unfortunate part of the pining, largely silent love interest back on Earth—this is primarily Pitt’s show. The movie trusts his natural charisma to carry us through the first two thirds of the film, when Roy is efficient but emotionless. I wish it trusted him as much during the final moments, rather than relying on the voiceover to communicate the personal awakening Roy undergoes. There are also some scientific liberties being taken when Roy makes it to Neptune, which are only notable because the film had, up to that point, done a credible job of making this near future of space travel believable. (By the finale, he’s pretty much the Silver Surfer.) At this point, however, logic doesn’t really matter. After all, what do gravity and trajectory have to do with daddy issues, which are the film’s primary concern?