Directed by James Gray
Let's get this out of the way first, friends and neighbours. Things Ad Astra has in common with Interstellar: handsome, middle-aged leading man, and space. That's it. Full list. Anyone comparing Ad Astra to Interstellar has probably never seen one or the other. Or, more likely, went to see Ad Astra with only having one seen science fiction film before and that film was Interstellar. And now that we have that out of the way, let's get all pretentious for a bit.
Ad Astra is more a father son story wrapped up in an existential exercise than it is any traditional sic-fi film. James Gray, the director and co-writer, has said that 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now are the touch points for his film. Ad Astra is a very meditative film, it takes its time and is very thoughtful. And it is very much equal parts Kubrick and Conrad and Coppola.
The movie tackles the weight of being the son of someone else's hero. The problem of being the son of someone who was absent long before they went missing. How the son's sins are inherited from the father. The film is centred around Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt. He is the son of Clifford McBride, a man who is spoken of as hero, as a symbol of humanity's space exploration. The first human to Jupiter, to Saturn. The first human to our solar system's outer neighbourhood. A father who's ambition and drive and all the stuff that makes this kind of person possible made him shut out his family, his friends, his coworkers. Long before he went missing near Neptune, he was already absent to his son. As Roy McBride tells us, he was gone long before he went missing.
And, like the father, so is the son. What others see as fearless is shutting down of emotions, shutting down everything that doesn't involve the task at hand. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the younger McBride's focus and the most tragic victim of this is his marriage. Roy McBride's wife and their marriage haunts Ad Astra, silently in the background before she fades, messages left for Roy because he is incapable of conversation. Liv Tyler is Eve, the ex-wife, and her ethereal beauty and haunted eyes are perfect for a role with almost no dialogue.
The few bursts of action in Ad Astra are jarring, almost as if they are from another film. Like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, these moments are consequences of the real world interfering with our hero's mission. Like 2001, Ad Astra doesn't follow any screenplay writing guidebook. This isn't a movie written with a dog-eared, annotated copy of Save the Cat sitting beside a laptop in a Starbucks. Another touchpoint for the film could be Fury Road. It feels like a fully thought out and developed world with a script that came about after the fact.
Brad Pitt is truly and honestly phenomenal in Ad Astra. This is very much the year of Pitt. Between this and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, he is proving again that he more than a leading man, that he is more than a character actor. Roy McBride and Cliff Booth are living, breathing creations. The "is Brad Pitt a character actor trapped in a leading man's body" discussion has been going on since, what, True Romance? Kalifornia? Seven? Or maybe 12 Monkeys? In his 56th year on this blue marble, I think the discussion can be shelved. Brad Pitt is a Great Actor, one of the best of Ever. If we still need a peg to hang his career on, maybe Mr. Pitt is his generation's Cary Grant. Another ridiculously handsome fella who hid ocean's of talent behind one of God's great faces, capable of great comedy and pathos and danger.
Mr. Pitt could have made Roy McBride another Willard. But instead of watching Apocalypse Now for acting tips, his Roy is something new, something startling and inspiring. Mr. Pitt has pulled so far into himself, his performance is so minimalist, that some might not see what has been achieved. But they will feel it. Roy is broken in so many different ways but is completely unaware of it. His loneliness is almost a character in the movie, but he seems to rarely be aware that what he is feeling is loneliness. Ad Astra lives and breathes in Mr. Pitt's performance, he is in nearly every frame, his narration moves the story.
But as great as Mr. Pitt's performance, as great as Ad Astra is, the image that sticks with me is Tommy Lee Jones' eyes. There is a haunted quality that hints at secrets, at genius, at madness. Again, Mr. Jones could have just made his character another take on Kurtz but instead he has created something new.
And that's Ad Astra in an elevator pitch - it's like Apocalypse Now with the mediative, existential angst sci-fi of 2001, of Solaris. It's heady sci-fi with some Joseph Conrad. But out of ingredients that are old, James Gray and his team have created something new. Something new and wonderful.