Review: ‘Ad Astra’

Brad Pitt gives a measured performance in a beautiful spectacle of a film that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be

Brad Pitt gives a measured performance in a beautiful spectacle of a film that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be

Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox

Here’s a conversation that seems to have occurred between director James Gray and screenwriter Ethan Gross, when they were devising the story for Ad Astra:

Gray: OK, so Brad Pitt is an astronaut who has to go to Mars so he can contact his astronaut father who may or may not be blowing up antimatter on Neptune and triggering energy waves that threaten to destroy the solar system.

Gross: Correct.

Gray: And until now he was convinced his dad was dead.

Gross: Yes. And they had a really screwed up relationship. But we don’t need to get too much into the details.

Gray: OK. Should Brad be married?

Gross: Sure.

Gray: Hmm. I still feel like something’s missing.

Gross: Maybe he has to go to the moon before he goes to Mars?

Gray: Yes! And when he gets there, the moon is like a war zone, and they all get attacked by space pirates.

Gross: Brilliant. And then on their way to Neptune they stop at a space station and get attacked by rabid space baboons.

Gray: Genius!

There’s no denying that Gray (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant) and Gross (TV’s Fringe) managed to put together an original, sometimes compelling narrative and, with the help of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Interstellar, Her), a visually magnificent film so ambitious in scope that it seems like it came from the future. And Brad Pitt has perhaps never been better than he is here, even when taking into consideration his performance in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which was arguably the first film in which Pitt managed to disappear into a character that didn’t first require him to diminish his beauty. In Ad Astra, as Roy McBride, an astronaut whose almost sociopathic detachment from emotional entanglement makes him the perfect astronaut for the U.S. Space Command’s most dangerous missions, he is at once admirable and pitiful, an enigma and a simpleton, a brave man and a scared little boy, and, well, beautiful. Pitt brings all of the emotional depth that the role requires, but because the filmmakers chose to overload the film with meaningless action sequences and plot detours, by the time Roy finally achieves some form of catharsis at the end of the film, we don’t get to feel any of it.

Nevertheless, Ad Astra, as a spectacle, is a pleasure to watch. The future that Gray depicts is fully realized and for the most part very believable. We don’t know exactly how far into the future it takes place — according to a few lines of script that appear onscreen at the beginning of the film, “the near future” is as specific as he wanted to get — but one could speculate that it’s at least a century and a half from now, considering that we’ve not only managed to build a mile-long space station just outside our atmosphere from which Roy and other members of the space program search deep space for intelligent life; but also because we’ve built an entire settlement on the moon, a second one on Mars (where late-thirty-something adults had been born), and have sent an entire team of astronauts to Neptune. Yes, some of the details are fuzzy — What’s the moon conflict really about? What do the space pirates want? And why are scientists experimenting on baboons hundreds of millions of miles from Earth? — but because these segments of the film are so thrilling, the experience outweighs our confusion. It’s when we get to end of the film, after we’re left wanting for the catharsis we’ve signed up for, that we realize these segments, though entirely unnecessary, would be the most memorable scenes in the film. Yes, we enjoyed them while they were happening, but we didn’t get to cherish them as much as we could have since we were too busy anticipating what comes next.

Gray may have set out to make a futuristic space drama about a complex man whose daddy issues haunt his marriage and his work, but that only works when the other characters that factor into the equation — in this case, Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), and wife, Eve (Liv Tyler) — are as developed as the protagonist; the very little we learn about Eve is through flashbacks that include virtually zero dialogue between the couple. And the same goes for Roy’s father, whose screen time is restricted to oddly low-def archival video from the mission that resulted in his disappearance, as well as the occasional flashback that looks more like a funhouse of mirrors than an actual memory. Pitt is left to do all of the emotional heavy lifting in the film on his own — an impossible task, even for a seasoned actor like him. One could argue that Pitt’s predicament is fitting, considering that his character’s emotional handicaps have alienated him from his relationships and that, through a ridiculous set of circumstances, he eventually finds himself entirely alone on a mission to save the world. But I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers were going for when they crafted this beautiful mishmash of a film.