When it comes to space travel in film, most tend to get lost in how gigantic this realm is and naturally imagine an epic journey. That much is true, but there is also isolation and loneliness associated with it as seemingly all astronauts/space travelers are by themselves (either literally or figuratively, or both) and use that time for personal reflection. Ad Astra, the latest from director-producer-writer James Gray, is a fine example of that. Using dazzling visuals that immerse viewers in the deep reaches of space, Gray has crafted a sterling think piece that's rooted in some common themes.

Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland and Liv Tyler, Ad Astra focuses on Major Roy McBride and his journey to Neptune. Roy hopes to find Clifford McBride (Jones), Roy's father, believed to be dead after tragedy beset a mission Clifford was leading. This mission was commissioned to seek out and locate intelligent life outside of humans and is known as the Lima Project. This project is the source of powerful and destructive power surges, one of which almost killed Roy.

Roy is under orders to travel to Neptune and establish contact with his father, and along the way the son is forced to grapple with his relationship with his father and the past he's conveniently set aside and compartmentalized.

Although Roy's trip is massive (the distance from Earth to Neptune is approximately 2.69 billion miles), this expedition is also a personal journey. A good portion of Roy's trip is spent alone and during that time he uses it to reflect upon his relationship with his dad. He also thinks of his wife, Eve (Tyler), with whom he's become estranged. It's here (and throughout) we witness one of Pitt's most understated and best performances of his career. Pitt plays Roy as calm and collected – during an early scene it's mentioned that Roy's heart rate didn't spike above 80 bpm even as his life was in danger. Roy is calculated and precise and it's a marvel to witness Pitt play that with ease. It's also impressive to witness Roy handle stressful situations with a level head.

Scattered about are psychological evaluations Roy must perform. The tests seem innocuous, but they provide plenty of insight as to Roy's state of mind (the evaluations double as a personal journal). That, along with some narration from Roy, adds depth to Pitt's fantastic turn and may result in some awards talk by the end of the year.

I should warn you – with a running time of 124 minutes, Ad Astra feels long. Gray is fond of deliberate pacing – his last project, The Lost City of Z, is another epic journey with deeply intimate and personal introspection at its core and runs a near-glacial 144 minutes. Gray wants to give his characters (and his audience) room to ponder and reflect, and the slower pace allows for that. What that means is this less Star Wars and more 2001: A Space Odyssey. And with the similar prospect of two men going head-to-head with each other, Ad Astra bears some resemblance to Apocalypse Now.

With the addition of amazing visuals (Interstellar's Hoyte van Hoytema served as cinematographer), the subtle but moody score (Max Richter, Mary Queen of Scots), Ad Astra is a striking human story that seamlessly blends with outer space. It deserves to be compared with 2001 and Apocalypse Now because its themes of reconnecting parent with child and understanding one should live their life free if burden are relatable, complex and emotional.

I will acknowledge that Ad Astra will not play for everyone – its pacing, ambiguity and lack of action (again, it's not Star Wars) are enough to turn off many. But I love it, its themes and all it represents. I consider it one of the year's best films and worth watching on the biggest screen possible.

4.5 stars out of 5


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