Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut who is always living in the shadow of his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), whose achievements in space have made him nothing short of a legend. Years ago, Clifford McBride vanished on an all-important mission to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, leaving Roy McBride’s already difficult feelings toward his Pops even more complex. He’s gonna have to confront those emotions with his new mission, which will see him traveling to Neptune to stop a deadly-laser cannon and dealing with the possibility that his father is actually still alive after all these years. Lots of voice-over work from Brad Pitt and rockets flying across space proceed to ensue.
“Ad Astra” is an extremely solemn feature film, with its grim nature being constantly reinforced by Pitt’s omnipresent narration that sees his character somberly intoning how his Dad’s aloof attitude towards his son has instilled in Roy a similarly distant attitude towards all the people in his life, creating a cycle of toxic behavior in the process. Sometimes Gray and Ethan Gross’ screenplay relies too heavily on this dialogue when just visual means would do while certain pieces of ham-fisted dialogue stick out like a sore thumb in a movie so devoted to austerity. For the most part, though, Pitt’s narration provides a fascinatingly raw window into a closed-off man’s soul, we get a poignant glimpse into the parts of himself that he closes out from everybody else in his life.
These more contemplative elements of “Ad Astra” are predominately successful in their own right but what I enjoy about this particular movie is that they’re placed within a plotline that could easily have worked for some kind of schlocky action movie. A deadly laser throwing deadly surges of power at the Earth sounds like a threat you’d find in a Transformers movie, not in something channeling Andrei Tarkovsky in its tone. Brief digressions into the realm of sci-fi action, like an exhilarating Moon rover chase scene that’s basically Mad Max On The Moon, totally should feel like they came from a wholly separate movie, but Gray admirably realizes you can have both Deadly Space Monkeys and also introspections on pent-up emotional trauma.
Any movie that tries to fuse such disparate elements together gets my kudos and films like “Ad Astra” that actually manage to blend such elements together successfully gets my highest praise. It helps too that these action scenes being such a departure from the typical tone of the movie is intentional in helping to emphasize how distant Roy is from the rest of the world. The somber thoughtful nature of Ad Astra is primarily informed by Roy’s own internal voice-over as he navigates a galaxy that he intentionally keeps himself detached from. Digressions into more action-oriented material, as well as other elements like a comedic cameo from Natasha Lyonne, help to reinforce that there’s a larger world with more tonal complexities beyond just the exclusively grim one in Roy’s head. His perspective may be a somber one, but that does not mean the cosmos he navigates is similarly soaked in despair.
Contemplating how the tonal fluctuations in “Ad Astra” reflect the lead characters place in this universe is one of the many traits in this feature that leaves your mind occupied once you leave the theater. Certainly, Brad Pitt’s impressive stripped-down lead performance is another one of those traits. Tasked with playing a man who intentionally keeps his exterior self as restrained as possible, Pitt does remarkable work in still communicating the characters interior psyche in subtle exterior terms. Pitt’s voice-over work is also commendable and manages to ensure that this part of the production, which could have easily become an overbearing nuisance, doesn’t overstay its welcome. Supporting turns from Ruth Negga and especially Tommy Lee Jones also prove to be noteworthy parts of this production, though poor Liv Tyler as Roy’s lover has nothing to do here in a role that feels like it should have been expanded so as to allow some tangibility to Roy’s life on Earth.
This esteemed cast is typically floating around in stunning pieces of camera captured by director James Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Hoytema, having tackled “Interstellar” and “Her” in the past, is no stranger to creating beautiful imagery in contemplative science-fiction storytelling and he delivers some remarkable work here, particularly any of the quietly haunting scenes capturing characters set against the vastness of space. Hoytema’s cinematography makes space, much like it is in Claire Denis’ “High Life,” a merciless yet visually stunning void almost as vast as the emotional problem Roy McBride is grappling with. “Ad Astra” manages to explore his own intimate internal woes with as much success as it has in pulling off grandiose cosmic imagery.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.