Pitt Connects In Epic Tale Of Exploration
Haunted loneliness lingers throughout director/co-writer Jim Gray‘s Ad Astra. Even during the opening sequence which begins with glorious shots capturing the earth aglow in all hues of grandeur, its a closeup of astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) that grabs your attention. The camera sits on him as he pensively gazes out from behind the dome of an astronaut helmet, in the background, the endless darkness of space. Although shots like these are commonplace in a space film, its the similarities of the contrasting elements that immediately triggered something in me – feelings of loneliness a lack of human connection. The claustrophobic isolation inside a sealed space suit contrasted against the vast, endless, silence of space.
The film centers around Roy a calm, confident astronaut who seems to be able to internally handle just about any situation. But, at the same time he seems lost, often wearing an expression that lands somewhere between melancholy and distant. His marriage to Eve (Liv Tyler) is broken. He seals himself off from human interaction, brushing away even the simplest of affections. It’s an emptiness that stems from his complicated relationship with his father, Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the world’s most decorated astronaut. His father is distant, to say the least. When Roy was young he went to explore outer regions of the solar system and never returned.
The film opens with Roy saving himself from impending doom during a frightening space incident, Shortly after he is recruited by the United State Space Command for a top-secret mission which involves researching a series of energy shockwaves called The Surge. These blasts, which are causing significant damage on earth seem to be originating from somewhere near Neptune. Coincidentally, it’s same the location as the last known existence of Roy’s father’s ship. The fear is The Surge, if not stopped, could eventually destroy the entire solar system. During his briefing, Roy is shown a video, one of the last contact with his father. Cliff seems at peace, speaking about how being deep in space makes him feel the presence of God. Seeing his father again only increases Roy’s need to reunite with his dad.
Roy’s journey also leads to some exciting sequences including space pirates, mysterious attacks and errant space landings which serve to raise the heart rate above the film’s slow, deliberate pacing. While the film may seem meandering at times that we find its heart. These stretches allow us to observe Roy’s inner reflection. He’s a man on a mission; a mission that goes beyond the obvious daddy issues. It is an examination of both inward and outward discovery. He is haunted by doubts, regrets, and shortcomings propelling this beyond a typical space exploration film into an existential character a study probing the core of human actuality.
The future Ad Astra creates is not the haunting dystopian nightmare you often find in films. And, at the same time, it’s not the overly optimistic future that’s so bright that you have to wear shades. Rather, it is kind of mundane. There’s an empty feeling in both the people and the world in which they live. The advances in technology allow don’t seem to add any additional fulfillment to life. for commercial travel to the moon (with $125 pillow/blanket packages. And once you arrive, the colonized is essentially strip malls with their very own Applebees (how the hell did that survive?) As Roy describes the moon base as, “a recreation of what we are running from on earth.” In other words, more of the same. An endless search for meaning in life, where voids are filled with smaller voids instead of anything of significance.
We are voyeurs as we witness instances in Roy’s life where he had chances to connect right in front of him that he inevitably pushes away. We are just as helpless as this broken man who cannot overcome the extensive damage derived from the decades of lost time with his father. His inability or unwillingness to reach out is devastatingly relatable, requiring a nuanced delivery from Pitt. Roy’s pain, inner conflict, and personal disconnect all rest on the shoulders of Pitt. The results are one of the best performances of his career. One will surely have him in the discussion to face off this Oscar season against Leonardo DiCaprio, his “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” co-star. Pitt is supported by a top-notch cast, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, and Tommy Lee Jones, all of whom deliver strong performances with their very limited screen time.
The direction by Jim Gray (Lost City of Z) is patient and deliberate. He sits on the most personal aspects of the film allowing them to reveal the humanity at their core. The physical and emotional divisions he creates resonate providing much to contemplate long after viewing. His screenplay, co-written by Ethan Gross (TV’s Fringe) is sparse in dialogue while still providing an emotional punch. In this tale of isolation sometimes the absence of dialogue says much more than the spoken word. The visually stunning cinematography by Hoyt von Hoytema (Interstellar) captures the weightlessness of space’s cinematic ballet while adding great weight to the confined scenes. It is easy to forget this is all done on Hollywood sets rather than somewhere in space.
As always, my reviews are written in a fashion that, even after reading, allow the film to unfold for the viewer as the director intended. Essentially spoiler-free. There is much more to Ad Astra that can be analyzed and discussed, which I will save for the comment section and social media. Turn away now, if you so choose, but I’d encourage reading this after you see the film. There are also numerous references to God and faith are spattered throughout the film. Some can’t be missed, like Cliff’s comment about being “in the presence of God,” or the prayers said by the space crews, including one to St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Others may be easier to overlook like the apt name of Roy’s wife, Eve. The most powerful imagery is that mimics the iconic art of the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted the outstretched hand of Adam reaching for that of God. What does it all mean? I have my theories which I will keep to myself until the future conversations. Curious to hear what you take away from the film.