Ad Astra is an intimate emotional journey writ large (as in galaxy large.) It’s a combination of Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 127 Hours, with hints of A River Runs Through It, Road to Perdition, Field of Dreams, and Apocalypse Now. And it gives us the second great performance by Brad Pitt this year.
The plot is relatively simple, and almost slim. IMDB lays it out as well as any other source: “Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his miss father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the world.” Pitt is Roy McBride, and Tommy Lee Jones plays his father. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland are in it, too, and they make an impact when they are on screen. But they are in the film for relatively short periods, and this is basically all Brad all the time.
The film tackles issues of loneliness, identity, fatherhood/sonhood, and isolation. Several questions arise, however, and they are the real story: “What/who are we in this universe?” “ Are we alone in the universe?” “What should the relationship be between fathers and sons, especially if they have a similar calling, or if one of them goes off the rails?” “Can we properly function without intimate human contact?” “How do we handle it when a loved one doesn’t want our help?”
The film is meditative, surprisingly quiet (albeit with a few action scenes), and thoughtful. To describe the various stages of Roy’s internal journey would be to spoil the film, but it fits nicely with his outward journey. As quiet as the film is, there are notes that are not as subtle as they could be. Roy’s wife is named Eve, which is perhaps too on the nose. (And Liv Tyler, as she often does, plays less of a real character than an archetype, the beautiful woman—now not the beautiful girl—who represents all lovely womanhood, be it human or Elven). Also, Roy’s dispassionate description of his final psychological state is nearly a parody of his earlier descriptions and is a little too explicit.
Director James Gray is no stranger to journeys that are both physical and psychological (The Immigrant, and especially The Lost City of Z). Here he masterfully blends the personal and the intimate played against adventure that takes one across the universe. (It’s rather like Lawrence of Arabia, but with a personal journey that’s more direct and much less complex). Spoiler alert: Roy’s story begins with isolation and ends with the expressed need for connection. But nearly every person Roy “connects” with inhabits their own space, and seems contained and slightly remote and removed. Even at the end of the film, when it is suggested that Roy and Eve might/will reconnect, they each receive their own screen space, and there is no real physical connection.
A film like this lives or dies on its central performance, and Pitt gives what may well be his best performance, one that demonstrates both his strong points while extending his range. Pitt’s journey as an actor is receiving a good deal of thought and talk this year, and it’s true that this role fits where he is right now as few other of his films have. There has often been a certain removed quality to Pitt’s work, as if his energy is centripetal and every move and word is from a point of thoughtful and isolated observation. That works well here, as that is the character’s starting point. But as the film develops, so does the performance, and Roy’s isolation (aversive to touch at times) turns to connectivity (reaching out to Dad). At the same time, Pitt softens, opens, and even comes to tears; it’s a beautiful emotional arc.
To put on a more practical hat for a moment, it’s hard to see how this film will capture its audience after a few weeks. It’s not a rip-roaring space adventure, nor is it a quiet character study. There are a few exciting and tense moments, but this is a father-son film that follows an overly-controlled and isolated man as he deals with finding his father and realizes his need for others. Fortunately, it’s also a vehicle for the star-of-our-times as he gives a performance of richness and depth as he’s never done before. Perhaps that will end up being enough.