Twenty-five years ago if you were to tell me that Brad Pitt would become one of my favorite actors I would have said that you mispronounced “Robert DeNiro” and then muttered something about you knowing nothing about film. While I loved Seven and to this day list Fight Club as one of my all-time favorites, I attributed those to Morgan Freeman and Edward Norton respectively, and to David Fincher’s direction, with Pitt as an unfortunate side effect, much as I later would when some of my other favorite directors – Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers – started working with other actors I also would have scoffed at. Yet somewhere over the last two decades Pitt, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney, has developed a reputation of so often appearing in challenging, engaging films that his involvement alone is enough for me to take notice. (Meanwhile, DeNiro has sadly spent the better part of ten years languishing in crude comedies. …The Irishman better be good. I can’t stand the idea of all my teenage favorites wasting their time on a bad film.) And so was the case with Ad Astra, one of my favorite actors appearing in one of my favorite genres. That alone was enough to pique my interest.
It is important to stress the idea of Brad Pitt alone as this happens a lot in Ad Astra. While other stars such as Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland and the always underused Ruth Negga drift through, the film’s fortunes truly rest with Pitt alone as his character, Roy McBride, travels from near-future Earth to the very edge of human civilization following a plot that is much less about the survival of mankind than McBride’s existence as part of it. McBride’s sense of stoicism – a most traditionally masculine trait – is cleverly explained in his opening psychological evaluation, focusing on the mission to the detriment of everything else, and through an early conceit that even in the most explosive of situations Roy’s heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute. This characteristic adds importance to times when McBride does break down, with Pitt turning in a performance which seems less like acting and more like the man himself releasing emotions built over the last few years of his well publicized personal life. Indeed there are times during McBride’s narration – whispered introspection that wouldn’t be out of place in a Terrence Malick film – that it’s hard not to imagine the actor’s divorce and family troubles informing his every word. It wouldn’t be a stretch to state that Ad Astra may in fact contain Pitt’s finest acting performance, especially since he is so often the only living presence on screen.
It also wouldn’t be a stretch to state that McBride’s narration may be entirely unnecessary to the film, other than to further drive home the parallels between Ad Astra and Apocalypse Now. There are times when McBride’s pondering about the mistakes he’s made seem contradictory to what we’re seeing on screen as this highly skilled and highly regarded astronaut is entrusted with saving all of life in the universe. While an argument could be made that McBride’s self-doubt is emblematic of the uncertainty all people have, even those as successful as Brad Pitt, a much greater device is build into the film with the psychological evaluations McBride undergoes before and after every sortie into space. Similar to Blade Runner‘s human tests, these repeated examinations provide the context and development needed to keep the audience aware of what is happening under McBride’s calm exterior. Although, without the running narration Ad Astra‘s long, contemplative stretches may test the audience’s patience as the silence of space sets in. As is, I remember part way through the film’s second hour hoping that the psych evaluations would lead to something remarkable. Perhaps without the narration to cover the slack, the evaluations could have become a defining characteristic rather than merely a vehicle for Pitt to display his deepest emotions. Or, perhaps without McBride’s narration, an already abstract story about a man searching for his father would have become untethered, its emotional weight drifting off into the distance. We can’t tell for certain, but the quiet of Ad Astra‘s galaxy provides us time to think of such things.
For all its silent consideration, Ad Astra is not without open criticism, as the Earth’s moon has become a tourist destination littered with the same clutter of humanity’s birthplace, and bombast, through the pirates which stalk its barrens for resources. The leisurely pacing makes the few moments of excitement memorable, but watching McBride sit for long periods of travel and quarantine also undercuts any sense of narrative urgency. Indeed it feels more like the crisis at the heart of Ad Astra is content to wait for McBride to float toward it rather than propel him on.
It is impossible not to feel Ad Astra‘s theme of isolation. Obsessed by his drive to fulfill the mission to the detriment of everything else, McBride is a man who is more comfortable watching humanity from within a self-contained environment than while sharing oxygen with fellow astronauts. Complete with an absentee father and a separated wife, McBride is in every way the stoic, self-sacrificing hero. It’s in this manly trait that Ad Astra is granted the chance to make its biggest statement, more than the role of parents and children, or of man’s search for life, but on the folly of the strong, silent male fantasy: the military man who sacrifices all for the mission, the astronaut who takes a one-way trip for the good of mankind. Yet in its quiet, ponderous way Ad Astra beautifully lays out the pieces of its themes, some as clear as the sun, some as fleeting as a dust cloud, for the audience to pick up as they please. As with all good science fiction, Ad Astra is less about the space beyond our world and more about the space within ourselves.
Pitt’s performance, the deliberate pacing, the uniformly gorgeous visuals, and the attention given to everything seen and heard more than cover for Ad Astra‘s shortcomings, ranking it with Interstellar and Gravity as one of the great modern space operas, albeit the least of the three. While the physics of space are tenuous, with sound and inertia not operating as they should in a vacuum, the loneliness of one man’s journey into the deepest part of himself is only heightened by an environment which doesn’t offer so much as a single breath. As with McBride, Ad Astra forces its audience to examine our own isolation from the people we love and ignore and regret losing, an isolation we force ourselves into, even as all we truly need is in abundance around us. That feeling alone is enough to make this a voyage worth taking.