What a time to be Brad Pitt. Not only has he delivered some of the year’s best supporting work in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, but now he headlines James Gray’s fascinating space adventure “Ad Astra”. Both performances could (and should) give the 55-year-old Pitt plenty to look forward to come Oscar night.
“Ad Astra” (which is a Latin phrase meaning ‘to the stars’) is Gray’s followup to his brilliant yet under-appreciated “The Lost City of Z”. It’s a cerebral slice of science fiction in the vein of modern space-related think pieces like “Interstellar”, “Gravity” and “Arrival”. Interestingly, each of those three films ended up being my favorite movies from their respected years. So clearly I’m a sucker for these types of stories when they are done well.
Set in the near future, Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a steely and intensely dedicated astronaut who lives by the mantra ‘The Mission Always Comes First‘. We learn early that his devotion to his work has earned him the respect of his peers but it has cost him his marriage (Liv Tyler portrays his wife in a handful of brief yet effective flashbacks). As a result Roy finds himself in a self-inflicted state of isolation and emotionally detachment.
Roy is the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a highly decorated astronaut famous for leading the first ever manned mission to the outskirts of our solar system. The expedition was called the Lima Project and Clifford’s objective was to answer the big question: Is there intelligent life outside of earth? But it has been sixteen years since the last communication with the Lima Project leading most to believe Clifford and his team are dead.
The film begins with a jaw-dropping introduction. Roy is working on a communication array high in our upper atmosphere when a massive pulse from deep space triggers a deadly electrical surge. On earth tens of thousands are killed and Space Command scrambles to find the source of the pulse. They trace it to Neptune, which happens to be the last known location of the Lima Project. Command calls in Roy informing him his father may be alive and causing the life-threatening surges. Roy agrees to a top secret mission to Mars where he will try to establish communications with his father. Externally its a matter of saving our solar system. Internally it’s a chance for Roy to reckon with the personal void left by his estranged father.
“Ad Astra” certainly isn’t the first movie to use space as an allegory for a variety of meditative themes. Here James Gray digs into the psyche of a fractured man wrestling with deeply compartmentalized emotions and space is the perfect setting for his expressions of emptiness and solitude. He’s a man full of mixed feelings. One minute he proudly states “I do what I do because of my dad.” But later, in one of his many internal monologues, we hear Roy lament the thought of becoming the very man who left him years ago. And as his ship ventures through the vast darkness of space, the troubling similarities between father and son shine bright.
There is a striking similarity between Roy’s mission and the hunt for Colonel Kurtz in Frances Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. Instead of snaking down a Vietnamese river in a patrol boat, Roy ventures through space in hopes of answering the film’s central mystery – What happened to his father? Is he alive? Did he go insane? Is he responsible for what is called “a crisis of unknown magnitude“? Of course with “Ad Astra” there is significantly more going on under the surface. The heart of Gray’s film is profoundly human. Its interests lie in exploring our most intimate human connections and showing what happens when those connections are broken. It’s a soulful meditation on the lasting effects of parental abandonment and the ache of loneliness can be felt in every frame.
Gray’s tightly focused, minimalist approach is sure to surprise (or disappoint) those looking for more traditional science fiction. He tells his story with an indie film intimacy but that doesn’t mean we aren’t given bursts of deep space tension and plenty of exquisite images. We’ve witnessed cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s brilliance in movies like “Dunkirk” and “Interstellar”. Here he dazzles through his audacious uses of light, color and physics. His penetrating close-ups are just as compelling, never losing sight of the human element.
Without question Pitt’s performance is the heart and soul of “Ad Astra”. It’s brilliantly understated; quiet and restrained with the perfect amount of pathos. Pitt imbues Roy with a delicate stoicism and it’s amazing how much he can say through his weary, melancholic eyes. And despite his character’s confident and controlled facade, Pitt’s haunting portrayal captures a fragility that’s essential to Roy’s journey.
In such a franchise-soaked landscape it’s no surprise “Ad Astra” didn’t blow up the box office (It debuted alongside a Downton Abby film and the fifth Rambo installment). Plus it’s a James Gray movie which means it doesn’t pander to common conventions or popular expectations. And that’s what I love about this film. It’s uniquely its own thing and Gray isn’t afraid to challenge us to think and feel. It’s a technical marvel that’s rich with evocative visuals. It’s a tender rumination on the immeasurable value of our closest human relationships. It’s an inspirational call to introspection, forgiveness, and individuality. And that just scratches the thematic surface of this magnificent and unforgettable sci-fi experience.
VERDICT – 5 STARS