In an interview with Playboy in 1968, director Stanley Kubrick said “The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning,” and in his detailed response to the question, “Is life worth living?” he added, “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” I’d like to think that Kubrick would be a fan of James Gray’s new movie Ad Astra, not only because it feels partly inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (along with a heavy dose of Apocalypse Now), but because the film is about finding meaning in an empty universe. While the ads for the film have played up the thriller aspects of the plot, Ad Astra is more of an emotional, cerebral ride that confronts our alienation and loneliness against the expanse of space. Anchored by a career-best performance from Brad Pitt who bring a quiet, thoughtful intensity to an emotionally remote character, Ad Astra is a powerful and profound experience that takes us “to the stars” to find ourselves.
Set in the near future, Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is an astronaut working for Space Command who always keeps his cool, which has come at the expense of his personal relationships like the dissolution of his relationship with Eve (Liv Tyler). When the Earth starts experiencing strange electrical surges, the military brass tells Roy that the Lima Project is causing the surges. The Lima Project was a search for intelligent life out near Neptune, and the leader of the project was Roy’s estranged father Dr. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy’s superiors task him with going to Mars to transmit a message to his father that will allow Space Command to find Clifford and stop him. As Roy makes his way further into the cosmos, he wrestles with the emotional cost of confronting his father.
The structure of Ad Astra is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, but with the added twist of the Willard figure (Roy) having an emotional connection to the Kurtz figure (Clifford). The father-son dynamic here is fascinating because it shows how Roy has been shaped and molded by a distant father figure, both rejecting close relationships (as he has with Eve) and also seeking camaraderie with this father by following his profession and emotional aloofness. Roy’s conflict with his father is also a conflict with himself, and Gray and Pitt have masterfully shown how our parents shape us in ways that can drive us forward and also cripple us.
Pitt has never been better than he is here as you can see an actor really stretching himself and pushing the boundaries of his abilities. Former BuzzFeed reporter Alison Willmore (now with Vulture) astutely pointed out that Pitt is kind of a character actor trapped in a movie star’s body. Some of his most memorable performances aren’t as a bland leading man, but as a colorful supporting character in films like 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Burn After Reading, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. But Ad Astra shows the counterbalance to this as Pitt gives his quietest, most internal performances since his enigmatic turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
It’s the kind of performance that Oscar viewers almost always refuse to notice because it’s not a case of “most acting” (we saw this as recently as last year with another space man, Ryan Gosling in First Man). Roy, by his nature and his profession, is reserved. He prides himself on keeping his heart rate below 80 beats per minute no matter how stressful the situation. This kind of detachment makes him a great astronaut and a pretty lousy man. You can practically see the little boy hoping that if he’s good enough as an astronaut, then his father will be proud of him and come home. Rather than play this for maudlin sentiment, Gray and Pitt turn it into grand tragedy played as softly as possible by Pitt. Gray’s camera usually goes for the close-up of the actor, and Pitt gives us just enough to get into Roy’s thought process. Even his voice over is distant and cold with the sad traces of hurt and loss lurking underneath. The Academy notices flashy acting, but Pitt’s turn as Roy will go down as one of the best performances of his storied career.
Ad Astra is, despite a few riveting acting scenes, largely a somber, quiet movie that feels far more in line with the dramas of the late 1960s and 70s but with the VFX tools of the 2010s. Gray slowly pulls us into Roy’s mind and emotional state, and yet he also knows when to provide some fun shocks to the system. Ad Astra has some exhilarating set pieces like a shootout with pirates on the moon and answering a suspicious mayday call at a science station. These interludes don’t feel random, but instead almost function like a history of violence; they’re the dark side of humanity that Roy feels he can escape if he just shuts down his emotions and does his job.
I’ve run hot and cold on Gray’s films, but Ad Astra easily my favorite of his work. It’s a movie that on the surface seems as bleak and unforgiving as the cosmic setting. Roy stares out into the abyss and the abyss stares back at him. But rather than embracing nihilism in an empty void, Ad Astra finds reconciliation and redemption. While a few of Roy’s choices grate on me a bit, the overall picture is still a powerful narrative about the emptiness of the universe not serving as a prison but as a promise. To strip ourselves of humanity may protect us from scars, but it won’t heal us and it won’t save us. The vacuum of space is cold and unforgiving, but Ad Astra is anything but.