Ad Astra is a Latin phrase meaning “to the stars.” James Gray’s melancholic and meditative sci-fi adventure does indeed look to the stars, or at least one star: Brad Pitt. I had this GQ profile of Pitt in my mind right from the film’s opening moments, where the iconic actor’s luminous face is glimpsed in the hues of a solar flare as his stoic voice narrates about his present psychological status. That face—we have been enamored by its beautiful mystery for over 30 years, the epitome of handsomeness and cool. Yet do we understand Pitt the Man any more than we did three decades ago? Does he understand himself? What has this all been for? Ad Astra gazes at that face in nearly every frame and raises these questions of both Pitt and the character he portrays, celebrity astronaut Roy McBride. Cool as a cucumber in every situation, McBride is at-once recognized by everyone yet known by no one. He’s the son of the most famous astronaut of this not-so-distant future, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy doesn’t appear to know how to adequately live in his aloof (and possibly abusive) father’s shadow; when your dad is both a hero and a jerk, how are you supposed to feel? So when an interstellar power surge stemming from the Neptune region—the same planet where the elder McBride disappeared on an exploratory mission 30 years earlier—threatens all life in the solar system, and Roy is commissioned to try to make contact with his father, it sends Roy on an existential journey both into the outer reaches of the solar system and the inner reaches of his own psyche.
Ad Astra joins the ranks of Sad Parents in Space Movies—I even watched it in the same theatre where I saw Damian Chazelle’s First Man. Ad Astra is part Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, part Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, yet with the distinct psychological sentiments of James Gray, both cerebral and affecting. Gray is more interested in the mental and emotional interior dynamics of his protagonists than offering the visceral excitement of the action/adventure genres he typically employs: classic adventure tales (The Lost City of Z), period piece melodrama (The Immigrant), police films (We Own the Night). This isn’t to say there isn’t action or suspense: there’s a thrilling chase scene with space pirates on the lunar surface and (I am not making this up) a terrifying encounter with vicious space baboons. Yet Ad Astra is less space odyssey and more Freudian inner journey—it is trying to explore the human soul via an exploration of the cosmos.
The human soul being explored here is Pitt-as-McBride. Produced by Pitt’s production company, Plan B, it’s difficult to imagine any other actor in the role, and feels like a personal passion project, a sort of cinematic self-examination. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Pitt gives one of the strongest, most nuanced and affecting performances of his entire career. He is The Star of Ad Astra, and while that should come across as vain, it instead feels weighty, like Pitt is coming to the confession booth to loosen the burden of fame on his soul. He’s always taken on interesting roles, and is far more than just a pretty face in his range. The supporting roles are also stellar, from Donald Sutherland as an old friend of Clifford, to Ruth Negga as a commander of the underground settlement on Mars. Even with very little to work with, Liv Tyler offers a solid performance as Roy’s ex wife, and Natasha Lyonne gives a memorable uncredited cameo essentially playing herself. And Tommy Lee Jones is always fascinating to me, his weathered and weary face somehow so full of verve even after all these years.
Numerous reviews and critics have drawn comparisons between Ad Astra and the aesthetic of Terrence Malick, which makes me wonder if they’ve ever seen a Terrence Malick film. Though Roy is sometimes reminiscent of Pitt’s stern paternal figure from Malick’s The Tree of Life, Ad Astra‘s narrative structure, cinematography, voiceover narration, dialogue, framing, blocking, editing rhythms, and metaphysics are quite divergent from anything Malick has ever done. Where Malick’s is a God-haunted sacramental cosmos which dispenses with traditional narratives for moods and images, Gray utilizes a fairly straightforward plot framework, and Ad Astra‘s ever so brief depictions of religious faith suggest that such beliefs are (at best) a naïve emptiness. Where the elder Clifford explicitly cites God in an recorded message to Roy (there are other small religious nods, such as a eulogy and a prayer to St. Christopher upon a rocket’s lift-off), by the film’s coda, any question of God or faith has dissipated into an entirely humanistic conclusion. Which is fine; just don’t call it Malickian.
Ad Astra ultimately suggests that if we humans are all we’ve got in the universe, let’s make the best of it with the time we have left. Which brings me back to that GQ piece on Pitt. He shares about getting older, about searching for meaning, about the nature of truth. In response to a question about the possibility of human connection, he brings up religion:
Oh, man, I’ve gone through everything. Like, I cling to religion. I grew up with Christianity. Always questioned it, but it worked at times. And then when I got on my own, I completely left it and I called myself agnostic. Tried a few spiritual things but didn’t feel right. Then I called myself an atheist for a while, just kind of being rebellious. I wasn’t really. But I kinda labeled myself that for a while. It felt punk rock enough. And then I found myself coming back around to just belief in—I hate to use the word spirituality, but just a belief in that we’re all connected.
Yet, as the interviewer points out, faith in Ad Astra is more of a distraction from the real work, which (in this view) is looking inward, not outward. This posture is the opposite sentiment of Interstellar‘s: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt,” declares Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper. In contrast, Brad Pitt as Roy McBride is suggesting that perhaps we need to actually look closer at that dirt, to appreciate what it is and our place upon it, to know and remember how we are formed, that we are but dust (Psalm 103). If we’re caught up in obsessions with the impossible, we can miss the urgent realities right in front of us, including the possibility of genuine human connection and love. We may look to the stars for answers, but Ad Astra suggests that they, too, are only human.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2935510/