Traveling commercially to the Moon in James Gray's daring, wondrous new space epic Ad Astra is not the futuristic sci-fi dream envisioned by technologists or the Jetsons. It's a lot more like getting stranded at LaGuardia. The main lunar space port in the film is all grim concrete and quotidian storefronts. Exhausted travelers wander past a Subway. A bright blue Hudson News sign presides over the vast exterior structure. During his flight there, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) asks for a pillow and blanket. "That'll be $125," a floating flight attendant says, whipping out a credit card machine.
Gray's construction of these banal realities buttresses a magnificent and mysterious film, which opens Friday. It focuses on McBride's clandestine mission to retrieve his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) from Neptune's orbit. But the meticulous world-building, premised on the gradual colonization of the solar system, gives the mission a rich and sometimes terrifying backdrop. It's one of the most fully realized near-future visions I've ever seen on screen.
After surviving a near-death accident that opens the film, McBride is dispatched on the mission that functions as the main plot line. His father, the celebrated astronaut Clifford McBride (Jones) was the captain of an exploration team meant to gather intelligence on extraterrestrial life years ago, but he never returned. He is thought to be associated with a series of energy bursts wreaking havoc on Earth. Military execs are convinced that Roy might be the only man who can bring his father home — or else eliminate the threat.
If the plot sounds somewhat similar to 1979's Apocalypse Now, that's an association I personally was unable to shake throughout. The episodic nature of McBride's journey, deeper and deeper into an unknown and hostile environment, toward a crazed and brilliant man, already recalled Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam opus before Gray's narrative and stylistic homages: McBride's voice-over, the dramatic use of lighting, an occasional '70s-era distorted guitar riff.
The composition of images makes the film as exhilarating to behold as it is to figure out. Both the production design and cinematography are state of the art. A breathtaking chase scene on the Moon, for example, when McBride and his attaches are shuttling toward a Mars rocket with pirates in pursuit, is choreographed in and out of the abrupt pitch-black of the Moon's shadows. A Mars outpost is not the bright red of The Martian. It's beige and forlorn, staffed with depressed functionaries. In one of the tunnels beneath the base, McBride walks past graffiti and a stray dog gnawing at a piece of garbage. It might as well be Mosul.