It’s a helluva year to be Brad Pitt. He’ll go a couple years sometimes without making a movie, and then spring to life as he has this year with the one-two punch of Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood and now this week’s Ad Astra, from director/co-writer (with Ethan Gross) James Gray (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant, We Own the Night). The two characters he plays couldn’t be more different—one is a stuntman, content being in the background, while his Roy McBride in Ad Astra is a hero in the making, the astronaut son of astronaut legend Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing 30 years earlier, somewhere around Neptune on a mission seeking intelligent life in the universe.
The filmmakers are deliberately vague about the state of the Earth or even how far in the future this story is set, because in the end, it doesn’t matter. This is enough decades from now that the world has an antenna that stretches out into space, but if you fall off of it, you can parachute your way back to the surface. I’m not sure that makes sense, but it’s a visually awesome way to open this film about legacy, fathers and sons, and one man’s desperate search for the truth. Roy was raised being told and believing that his father is one of the planet’s great heroes, and that the search for alien life was one of necessity and not just curiosity.
In this version of existence, we have colonies on the Moon and Mars, and they’ve been there long enough that a pirate culture exists on the Moon, and that any legit mission driving around the surface has to be alert for possible roaming bands of thieves. Again, this truth leads to an incredible action sequence, which feels like dressing upon a far more cerebral plot.
Roy is informed that a series of pulses are sweeping across the Earth, knocking out power to entire continents. The pulses are infrequent for now, but getting worse, and it is believed that they are coming from the exact spot where his father’s team disappeared. The military part of the space program believes that it’s possible that the elder McBride is responsible for this destructive power, and now Roy must head to Neptune to find out what really happening. Naturally, Roy doesn’t believe his father is doing this, but his curiosity and desire to clear his dad’s name win the day, and he agrees to the mission.
In my estimation, it’s impossible to watch Ad Astra (which is Latin for “to the stars”) and not see it as a modern telling of Apocalypse Now (which was a telling of the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad). From an early scene with those briefing Roy and showing him photos of his father (like he doesn’t know what he looks like) to the well-paced series of stops along the way to Neptune, the film is so much like the Coppola film, it’s almost distracting but also endlessly fascinating. Ad Astra doesn’t dig deep into Roy’s psychology, which is both unfortunate and ironic considering how many times Roy must submit to psychological tests to be allowed to continue his mission. Roy is legendary in the space program for never letting his heart rate go above 80 bpm, even during the highest-stress situations.
The film has a host of interesting supporting players, but none of them really register significantly because they are in the film so briefly. Even still, a few stand out, such as Ruth Negga as worker on Neptune, Liv Tyler as the ex-wife Roy still misses, and Donald Sutherland as an old friend of Clifford’s who is meant to accompany Roy on the mission but doesn’t. Other people are brought into the fray briefly, but this is about a man’s solo journey to solve a mystery that he thought he’d have to live with for the rest of his life. The fact that finding his father might also save the planet almost seems secondary to him.
So Roy journeys from the Moon to Mars to another spaceship in distress (which results in one of the film’s most terrifying sequences) and finally to Neptune, all the while Roy seems to be slipping deeper and deeper into confusion and possibly insanity. There are certainly moments when we (and Roy) are not sure whether something he’s seeing or hearing is real. At one point, those in charge attempt to remove Roy from the mission, but he’s too deep in and ends up continuing against orders. No only is the mission compromised, but Roy is as well.
Once Roy arrives on Neptune, a great deal of what has come before becomes superfluous, and the film becomes about family, which is the very reason Roy shouldn’t have been sent on the mission in the first place—though it makes him the ideal candidate to approach his father if he has turned somehow, Roy is just too close to it all. Pitt’s performance is streamlined and understated, leaving very few opportunities for mistakes or spontaneity, but it works with this character.
The result is a gripping performance, one that kept me actively wondering what was going on in Roy’s mind the entire time and savoring every time we got clues to an answer. Above most else, Ad Astra is a beautifully shot film (thanks to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has worked recently with Christopher Nolan) that should only ever be viewed on the biggest screen possible. I admire it more than I love it, but I’m still recommending it highly.
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