So often when movies take us into space, it is so that we can watch things blow up real good. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it’s also wonderful to see a movie more in the “2001: A Space Odyssey” mold; one where things happen, yes, but the film itself is also concerned with offering up a wonderfully lyrical quality. Brad Pitt’s latest movie, “Ad Astra,” falls into this category. Yes, things blow up and yes there’s a tale to be told, but there’s a poetic nature to the telling which is perhaps the most remarkable quality of the work.
Directed by James Gray with a script from Gray & Ethan Gross, “Ad Astra” finds Pitt playing Roy McBride, an astronaut best known for being the son of H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the man who led a mission into deep space looking for alien life and was never heard from again. Except, as it turns out, that he was and when a series of electric pulses threaten all life on Earth, Roy must go off in search of his father who might be in the neighborhood of Neptune.
More than it is concerned with the mission itself, the movie is focused on Roy and his reaction to it. This is a man who starts out stoic, calmly detached from the world around him; he is a man who can control himself and never let his pulse go over 80, even when falling back to Earth from a near Earth orbit station when the station blows up as he is working on the outside. So, the audience watches as this rock hard exterior crumbles the closer Roy gets to his mission’s goal.
The emotional journey which is caused not just by the prospect of meeting his father, but also betrayal back at home and a questioning of his choices, is a fantastic one, and Pitt is excellent in the role. He brings the audience not just along on the space mission, but inside Roy’s shell. We feel the difficulties of his life and mission, the mistakes he’s made and things he would do differently, all as he approaches what very well may be a showdown with his father.
But, as stated, that’s not the only thing going on here. Gray’s film doesn’t just get us inside Roy’s character, it establishes this entire galaxy in which we live, take us from one thing we’ve never seen to another, and yet does it in such a way that it all resembles institutions and processes here on Earth. It is a near-future which has technology we don’t, but all feels appropriately based on things that do exist. This grounding helps situate the viewer as we take off into space and as scenes slowly, languidly, open and play out.
As with Kubrick in “2001,” Gray isn’t interested in rushing through things here. The camera shots, movements, and cuts lend a weightlessness to the affair which is perfectly in keeping with the outer space nature of it. It is also directly at odds with Roy’s emotional state, but the nature of the opposites work, enhancing the notion that Roy is going from one perfectly in tune with his locale to a man losing his bearings.
“Ad Astra” is a beautiful film. It is a movie which is not afraid to use its space setting and grand scope to tell a small story. Yes, humanity may be at stake, but this isn’t a story about saving the Earth as much as it’s one about Roy McBride’s journey of self, of finding out who he has been and who he ought to become. It is a confident and assured piece of filmmaking, one which doesn’t feel the need to pander to an audience used to space wars. It may be unexpected, but it is wonderful. Beyond that, it further solidifies Pitt as one of the finest actors of his generation. The journey we go on is Roy’s and without Pitt’s intensity and emotion it wouldn’t be worth the trip.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox