Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox

'Ad Astra,' Reviewed

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My phone buzzed in my pocket as the lights went down at the press screening, and I quietly chastised myself – I usually remember to put it on airplane mode before then, both as a courtesy to my fellow moviegoers and to ensure that I’ll take in the movie without even the momentary distraction of a text arriving. I quickly grabbed for the phone so that I could switch it off, better late than never, but caught a peek at the text in question: my wife, informing me that she was leaving work to go to our daughter’s school, and pick her up from the nurse’s office.

I ducked to the back, for follow-up questions, and quickly determined that this the kind of surface injury that’s basically par for the course for a six-year-old kid; she was fine, maybe a little shook up, but my wife wanted to see her, so she was going to. “Should I leave this screening?” I asked, with a feeling in my stomach that I didn’t much like: I was obviously, first and foremost, concerned with my daughter’s well-being. But assured of that, well, I needed to see this movie, for work. So that’s ok, right?

So it’s deeply ironic that the film in question was Ad Astra, a film fundamentally concerned with the questions of priorities and professional obligation – how much of ourselves we give to those who love, and how much our families are expected to understand when, sorry, we just have to work. These are not new questions for a filmmaker to ponder; I remember, at merely eighteen years old and not yet personally acquainted with the idea of asking for some “give” from one’s family, relating deeply to the themes of Ron Howard’s The Paper, a film deeply preoccupied with the idea of never feeling that one has enough time to do what’s important. (That film’s setting, at a fast-paced New York tabloid newspaper whose very life depends on meeting deadlines throughout the day, made those ideas especially pointed.)

When we meet Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), he thinks he’s figured it all out. “I will not be allowed to be distracted,” he proclaims. “I will not allow my mind to linger on that which is unimportant.” His narration is occasionally comprised of automated therapy sessions for his work as an astronaut, sometimes inner monologue; there’s not much difference in who’s listening, if anyone. What matters is this is not mere talk, and that early statement of principle is intercut with that which he has apparently deemed unimportant: his wife (Liv Tyler), who is leaving him. So it goes, he believes; these are the sacrifices you make in the name of a job that is bigger than you. He does the work, simply and effectively; he’s known for his unemotional approach, and for being so good in the clutch.

It turns out, he comes by it naturally. Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (a perfectly-cast Tommy Lee Jones) was the commander of the “Lima” mission, a manned journey into the deepest of space, which disappeared 16 years earlier, with all on board presumed dead. Now, a surge of electrical events, caused by “cosmic ray bursts,” have caused major power outages and dangerous communication failures, and NASA thinks those bursts may be coming from the elder McBride’s vessel, clear out near Neptune. They ask Roy to go, and he accepts immediately. “I don’t know if I hope to find him,” Roy shrugs, “or finally be free of him.”

Pitt is already having one of his best years, thanks to his shimmering movie-star turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; he’s up to something very different here, as a guy who finds his own emotional guardedness unlocked by this confrontation with his own pain, with the unexpected realization that “I don’t wanna be that guy. I don’t wanna be my dad.” The scene in which it all becomes clear to him, where the mask starts to falter, contains some of the most extraordinary acting of Pitt’s career – not because it’s so overwrought, but because it’s so simple. And yet, it’s emotionally clobbering.

Co-writer/director James Gray is a favorite of critics and indie movie fans, but has yet to find a commercial success equal to that specialized enthusiasm. One would hope that a science fiction movie featuring one of the cinema’s biggest names could close that gap, though the problem is that the very qualities that make his work so special – all on ample display here – are exactly the things that tend to alienate a mainstream audience. Despite its logline and budget, it’s a picture that often dazzlingly experimental; he’s playing with different styles and moods here, and doesn’t mind putting the meditative, introspective stuff on hold for sequences that play (by my reckoning, at least) like Mad Max on the moon and Alien with monkeys.

Yet though the craft is magnificent and the effects are convincing, they’re never there merely for their own sake. Ad Astra is set in a “near future” world that seems lived in – take, as but one example, the shopping concourse on the moon, with a DHL drop and a Subway shop, reminding us that no matter what we achieve, someone will find a way to sell it. And though it’s a picture filled with images of overwhelming power and grace (the cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema), capturing the vastness of space and solitude within it, those frames are always connected to the human, vulnerable emotions at the heart of the story.

Near the film’s heartrending conclusion, Roy says this about the planets his father explored: “Beneath their sublime surfaces, there was nothing. No light or dark, no love nor hate.” The subject is space itself, but strangely, as I was moved to tears by this big-budget genre picture, I read it a different way. Godard famously said that the way to criticize a film is to make another film, and through that lens, Ad Astra plays like a critique of its blockbuster brethren – films that marshal the limitless budgets and resources of the studio system, all at the service of filmmakers with nothing whatsoever to say, or feel.

“Ad Astra” is out Friday.