Who could have guessed that the race for best actor at the Oscars would be between Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt? As unlikely as it might sound, it’s true. The only thing this 55 year old performer can’t seem to do these days is age. That was the case with Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” this summer, where he played a stuntman so cool that his half smile can be found posted in the rooms of teenagers everywhere. It’s also the case with “Ad Astra.” Only Pitt could travel 2.7 billion miles into deep space and look no older than when he left.
The stars were aligned from the start in James Gray’s space odyssey. Pitt plays Roy McBride–a dutiful space pilot looking to escape the dark side of his fathers’ shadow (Tommy Lee Jones). H. Clifford McBride (dad) is a space celeb. Or rather, he was one before he vanished on Neptune decades ago. With the hopes of following in his fathers’ footprints, Roy has become a decorated pilot in his own right. The first time we see him he’s on an International Space Antenna in a cosmic nowhere. Millions of miles below is the blue and green landing mattress we call earth. Above him is infinity and beyond. Suddenly, sparks start to fly and the metal beams start to shake; humans become orange dots in a free-fall through the stratosphere. Roy is among those in free fall. It’s a breathtaking sequence shot with truly special effects. Even so, his ability to remain calm helps him survive; just as it did for his father and Neil Armstrong before him. Once on the ground, government officials tell him that the explosions came from a series of electronic storms, and that his father could be the one causing them from a ship on Neptune. That makes it Roy’s mission to find his father, kill him, and make sure these “surges” cease immediately.
“Ad Astra” is the latest in a surge of Sci-Fi films over the past five years. Weighty ruminations about the inability for the earth to survive (“Arrival,” “Interstellar,“”Annihilation”) have been a welcome sight at the theater. Climate change is no joke, people. And there’s sure to be a lot more where that came from in the following years. That’s not what this is about, though. Gray’s film is about a different sort of plague. Climate change may be killing the planet; but technology and obsession is killing human connection. Roy’s voyage is about coming to terms with the abandonment of his father, as well as coming to terms with his fading contact with the outside world. By trying to become the best of the best in space exploration, he’s become numb to feeling.
Until this galvanizing assignment, Roy had been going through the motions like everyone else. Instead of using the 2.7 billion mile journey to catch up on reading, he uses the time to think; to sulk on the past and make sense of the present. It also gives cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema plenty of time to wow us with the latest in VFX. Using images from Apollo 11-17 as inspiration, space has never looked so much like the real thing. A car chase on the moon is notable for its believability. While the industrialization of the moon itself is even more believable–neon signs for Applebees and Virgin airlines greet Roy at touchdown. Mars is no longer a dusty desert, but a place the rich can call their second home. All of it looks wonderful. Not to Roy, though. His eyes are on the prize. Ours is on Pitt.
He makes it look easy. Some members of the Academy are sure to look at his performance and ask: “Where’s the crying? Where’s the yelling? Yet it’s his silence that speaks volumes. What he does with a quiver of the lip or the twitch of the eyes is a masterclass in understatement. That restraint extends to the script. Even with the entire cosmos as its setting, the whole thing feels intimate. That’s the ambitious idea behind Gray’s screenplay, and it’s clear he has the technique to fulfill his ambitions. This owes a great deal to Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (for better and worse). It’s a treat to see the camera float through corridors; to sit through a slow and suspenseful pace; to get lost in a world of infinite possibilities. On the flip side, there’s Pitt’s voice over that’s nowhere near as deep as at it thinks it is. Some of the lines border on laughable.
None of that matters by the end, though. In the melancholy coda, Roy has reached the twirling rings of Neptune. That’s where he finds out that what he really has to face isn’t his father, but himself. It’s a sad realization. It’s also not a bad metaphor for how the Oscars are going to look in February.