Directed by James Gray | Written by Gray and Ethan Gross | 122 min
I was lining up for popcorn at the cinema last week, and behind me, two women noticed the poster for Ad Astra, featuring Brad Pitt against a starry backdrop. “Brad Pitt in space, I’d go see that,” said one. Her friend responded, “Yeah, for sure. The older and more leathery he gets, the hotter he is.”
I can’t speak to his hotness, but his work as an actor right now provides plenty to admire. Ad Astra demands a lot of him, a lot of his face, and he really delivers. Juxtapose Roy McBride and Cliff Booth (from Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood) and witness a performer near or at his peak in 2019.
McBride is a respected astronaut in the near future, a man with an unearthly cool called on for an unearthly mission. He’s asked to go to Mars to communicate with his father who’s in deep space near Neptune—for reasons I won’t go into that the film makes clear. McBride Sr (speaking of leathery, Tommy Lee Jones), was also a heroic astronaut who led the Lima mission, decades earlier, to the outer reaches of the solar system in an effort to discover extraterrestrial life, but is presumed dead. Back on earth, an unexplained planet-wide electrical surge is destroying infrastructure and killing people, and the source is believed to be in Neptune orbit. The elder McBride might be alive and somehow responsible—hence sending Roy to Mars in an effort to communicate with his father.
So, what we get here is a father-issue science fiction fable, so in that, and with the scale of its universe-building, it compares favourably with predecessors Contact and Interstellar, with other antecedents including (of course) 2001 A Space Odyssey, THX-1138, Event Horizon, and Soderbergh’s Solaris. But what Ad Astra is really indebted to is Apocalypse Now, and Joseph Conrad—it’s a story of a man on a long journey, a madman waiting for him at the end of it. It also wouldn’t be a mistake to compare this movie to that most American of genres, the Western. Roy McBride is very much a taciturn cowboy on a long ride.
It’s also a terrific visual treat—the universe-building I was talking about is at least partly due to cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar) creating plausible moon- and Mars-capes, and lovely-to-the-eye spaces in between. What maybe works best about Ad Astra is that while it’s idea-based, existential sci-fi, it also has room for space pirates and bizarre detours that inject a little chaos into material that otherwise might be too cerebral. Full marks for unexpected casting, including Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, and an odd cameo from Natasha Lyonne. Liv Tyler, however, is wasted.
It’s not a perfect movie, by any stretch. While Pitt carries the weight of the drama effortlessly, Gray (director of The Lost City of Z, another tale of adventure and loss) leans heavily on ponderous voice-over, to the point where possible allegory is minimized by this crutch—I could’ve used 50 percent less of it. My least favourite moments in the film are either V/O related, or in the last act, when the script gets clumsy resolving the relationship between father and son, the film ending on a moment so painfully perspicuous, I almost laughed.
My cinepanion wondered if the entire picture was really about the emotions adult children feels when they deal with the onset of parents’ dementia. She might have something there.
Overall, despite a few reservations, this is a solemn, thoughtful, and once in a while, thrilling movie about Brad Pitt in space. I hope my popcorn-line companions went to see Ad Astra, there’s a lot more about it to celebrate than castigate.
If you’d like to read another take on this film, please check out the write-up on Halifax Bloggers by science fiction scholar and FITI podcast guest, Jesse Hiltz, here.