movie reviews

Ad Astra’s beautiful solitude in space creates emotional clarity for Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt in space! Months ago, when I saw a sponsored post for an Ad Astra trailer pop up in my Twitter timeline, I thought Brad Pitt was doing a car commercial, making sure Matthew McConaughey didn’t own that territory. That misperception was quickly corrected once I clicked on the trailer. 

So Brad Pitt is doing his space movie. I forget who wrote this or where I read it, and I would love to give him — or her, but I’m pretty sure it was a “him” — credit for saying that every big actor has to do a space movie in his career. Because it sure seems true. 

George Clooney did Solaris, then Gravity. (Hell, let’s give Sandra Bullock her space movie here too.) Matt Damon had The Martian. McConaughey did Interstellar. Tom Hanks did Apollo 13. Ryan Gosling was in the criminally overlooked First Man last year. (Seriously, what happened there? How is that film not more acclaimed?) 

Can we put Hugh Jackman in The Fountain in this category? Does Mark Wahlberg in Planet of the Apes count? Will Smith in Independence Day?

Really, the only current star who hasn’t gone into space is Leonardo DiCaprio, right? I mean, yeah, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino haven’t been on a spaceship either, unless The Irishman is about something completely unexpected. But I’m talking more about today’s big movie stars. I’m sure there’s someone I’m forgetting.

Some people are going to hate Ad Astra. It’s a slow, ponderous film, and if you’re not in the mood for that, you might be rustling in your seat, checking the time, and wondering when something will happen. There are some action sequences that bring some intensity to the movie, but it sort of feels like they were inserted because either director James Gray or studio executives thought a little more excitement was needed. 

I very much enjoyed this movie. I don’t know if I can say I loved it, because it’s not a movie that really gives you something to embrace or grabs you by the shoulders and excites you. But I really liked that it provided me something to think about. And the visuals are fantastic. Hauntingly beautiful at times in depicting the vastness of outer space and the solitude and quiet horror of silence. 

What I especially appreciated as the world created for this film, which is futuristic, but still grounded in a sense of reality. The spacesuits and rockets aren’t too fancy, beyond what we’re familiar with. Really, the space program hasn’t looked cooler on film. But the story also includes colonies on the Moon and bases on Mars, so we’re not talking about a future that’s, say, 25 years from now. Maybe 50? 50 might be too far ahead, especially with the implication that Earth isn’t a desirable environment for humanity anymore and how far are we away from that? 

Yet this movie is really about daddy issues. Sins of the father passed onto the son, etc. Maybe it’s because I had my own issues with my father until my late 20s/early 30s, but whenever I see that in culture — especially in movies — I usually want to roll my eyes. And that had me a bit hesitant with Ad Astra. Ostensibly, Brad Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, is being sent on a mission to deep space, out to Neptune, to either rescue his father or stop whatever it is he’s doing to create flares or surges that are wreaking havoc back on Earth. Who better to figure out or confront the old astronaut who may have lost his mind and gone psychotic than his son? 

What I find especially intriguing is the idea that maybe greatness can only be achieved by leaving some humanity behind. The script mentions several times that McBride’s heart rate never goes above 80. He’s cool. Maybe too cool, to the point of being emotionless. (That lack of emotion might compel some to criticize Pitt’s performance.) That makes him a great astronaut. He stays calm under pressure, his focus never wavers.

But that also might make him a bad human being. Certainly, it makes him an inaccessible husband. There are references to rage issues, which presumably manifested in relationships. He appears to have no friends. He’s alone. 

Is that the lesson that Roy thinks he learned from his father, who left his family behind for the Lima Project mission, to spend the rest of his life in space? Did Roy become an astronaut to understand his father? How likely is it that Roy became an astronaut so he could confront his father about the emotional legacy he left to his son? 

Roy’s quest — or maybe it’s an escape, considering that he’s leaving Earth and whatever life he had there behind — isn’t a solitary one, however. Maybe spiritually. But he can’t really do this alone, and I don’t think the movie addresses the consequences of Roy’s mission, how it affects several people he encounters along the way.

Maybe that’s part of the compartmentalization that success and focus often require. Or maybe we’re supposed to believe that Roy eventually gets to a place that he acknowledges what happened in order for him to solve his personal crisis. 

This is also a great performance from Brad Pitt, whom I haven’t often been impressed with as an actor. Sure, he’s always appealing, but has become less reliant on his looks and charm and challenges himself more. Roy McBride is also quite a contrast from Cliff Booth, his character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. No, Cliff’s not the rigid disciplinarian Roy is. But he’s kind of the ideal, the male archetype that Roy is trying to confront. 

I don’t know if all that makes Ad Astra sound appealing to you or turned you off from it. I think it’s definitely worth seeing — and on the big screen so you can take in all of those beautiful visuals. I also tend to think that watching a movie with slow, quiet moments and long takes isn’t as compelling when there are so many distractions around. But this movie affected me more personally than I was expecting.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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