Brad Pitt showed us all why he’s one of the most talented movie stars in the business with his charismatic turn as the enigmatic Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And if that was not proof enough for you, look no further than Ad Astra, which sees Pitt operating in a much more understated, but equally impressive, register.
Part-2001: A Space Odyssey, part-Apocalypse Now in space, and 100% James Gray, who directed and co-wrote with Ethan Gross, Ad Astra uses the grandest cinematic canvas possible to tell the most personal and introspective of stories. I know that this phrase can feel a bit tired, but they really don’t make movies like this anymore.
Ad Astra takes place in the unspecified near future, where space travel has become more widely accessible. There is now an airport (or spaceport?) on the moon, and humans have found their way to colonizing on Mars. What has yet to be discovered, though, is extraterrestrial life. The last expedition to search for signs of alien life was the Lima Project 30 years prior, headed by esteemed astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). When contact is lost with the mission, and strange power surges begin to threaten all life, one man must travel to the outer reaches of the Solar System to learn the truth about what happened with the failed expedition.
And that man is Clifford’s son, Roy McBride (Pitt). Following in his dad’s footsteps in becoming an astronaut, McBride is lauded for his ability to keep calm in the most intense and demanding of situations (his heartrate never crosses 80 bpm). He consistently passes psychological evaluations and seems like the best possible choice for the mission. However, as he gets closer and closer to the truth about his father’s disappearance, his composure begins to crack, and emotion begins to take over.
Ad Astra wrestles with the idea that, to go farther than any human has gone before, you almost have to strip yourself of your humanity. Whereas Clifford’s mission was for the pursuit of knowledge, Roy’s mission becomes increasingly more personal for him. The very human father-son connection ends up being the motivating factor in Roy’s pursuit, at odds with the clinical and dispassionate fortitude required to be an astronaut.
Pitt uses the most restrained approach in playing this progressively revealing character, giving the dramatic moments a considerable impact that a showier performance might not have achieved. His initially calm and professional demeanor masks a pain and sense of longing, and Pitt gives us just enough of a hint at those feelings before they start revealing themselves fully later on.
At one point, Roy is tasked with reading a pre-conceived messaged that will be transmitted to Clifford’s spacecraft, in the hopes that he’ll respond. When Roy begins to rewrite the prompt, his emotional state changes. It’s one of the best scenes in the film, and it’s the scene that I imagine would be used in Pitt’s Best Actor Oscar clip.
Because Roy hides his emotions for a good bulk of the film, and the story is told entirely from his perspective, narration is used to help further express his state of mind. Pitt’s excellent delivery of this narration reminded me of Martin Sheen’s in Apocalypse Now, a film that shares more than a couple artistic and thematic choices with Ad Astra, especially the slow and steady way with which their intimate character studies play out.
Ad Astra’s deliberate pace effectively conveys the immense scale of Roy’s journey and better communicates the emotional toll it ends up taking on the protagonist. A sequence late in the film, which finds Roy traveling through space alone for weeks, uses clever editing and off-kilter camera angles to show the effect isolation has on Roy, with the emotional state that he is currently in.
Speaking of camera angles, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (who was also the DP for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar) finds many new ways to visualize the harsh beauty of space, especially through lighting. When Roy meets Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga, in a small role) on Mars is particularly striking in the way light flows through the shot. Even with all the expansive wide shots, Hoytema and James Gray know exactly when to bring things in for a close-up.
The supporting cast, which includes Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, and Ruth Negga, gets very limited screen-time. They all serve to enlighten us to Roy’s character and motivations, which denies them a noticeable level of depth. With such an intense focus on Roy’s arc and telling the story from his perspective, I can understand the minimal use of a supporting cast. I just think integrating them more into the plot would have strengthened an already impressive film.
Ad Astra is the type of visually grand and deeply intimate character study that we don’t really see in cinemas much anymore. This is a cinematic spectacle that is just as interested in what it means to be human as it is in inspiring awe. With a superbly subtle performance at its center, Ad Astra is a potent space drama definitely worth seeing.
Ad Astra is rated PG-13 and hits theaters tomorrow night.