The Academy Awards finally gave Brad Pitt his long-overdue first acting honour, twenty-five years after his first nomination, for his power-packed performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). His role of an easygoing stoner stuntman in Hawaiian shirts, who is also a man with muscle if played ducks and drakes with, clicked instantly with fans. While it remained a favourite performance throughout the awards season last year, on the other side, his more internalized, weighty and worthy performance in the mesmerizing Ad Astra (2019), which came out the same year, went unsung regardless of the high praises it received from critics.
Ad Astra, as the name suggests, is Roy McBride's (Brad Pitt) 'journey to the stars' seeking answers from the cosmos following a continual harmful wave of energy that puts life on Earth in danger. The epicentre of this life-threatening electrical surge lies close to Neptune and is believed to be an unsought outcome of a previously unsuccessful Lima Project. This project was headed by Roy's father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who mysteriously disappeared before the mission came to a fortunate end. In this way, Roy's journey into deep space also opens up the way to seek answers to some unanswered questions of the reality of his father's disappearance.
The film opens with a dizzying and dramatic catastrophic sequence above the Earth's stratosphere, akin to Gravity (2013), and has a lot to share with space movies of the recent past. While plot points and themes of a father lost in space with a family left behind, a mission to save the planet Earth, or humanity looking up to the stars for answers immediately reminds one of Interstellar (2014) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ad Astra is less ambitious than the former and less ambiguous than the latter. Interestingly enough, Ad Astra is also shot by Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, but both movies are far from many visually similar.
Focused on the interpersonal relationship of a young son abandoned by his solipsistic father in pursuit of a bigger exploration of the universe, the movie takes its time and builds on this contemplatively muted protagonist consumed by morbid silence and offers a satisfying – if not unique – meditative experience. Ad Astra aims for moody and atmospheric storytelling with symbolically rich frames instead of counting on a quick pace and wild action sequences to take the story forward. Brad Pitt dominates the screen with one of his best performances as the reclusive and restrained Roy McBride, whose heartbeat never crosses eighty beats per minute and who mostly prefers to be in his own company. In a movie about space there is also no space for emotion as Roy is required to consistently monitor and assess his psychological fitness to get clearance for his missions. The less overrun by sentiments you are, the better!
Along the lines of First Man (2018), Roy too is unable to leave his past behind and carries an unspoken grief and exasperation suppressed within, which becomes a daunting task for him to hold onto later. As he dives deeper into the stillness, disassociating himself from every fabric of feeling to calibrate his sombre and quiet existence, he might unintentionally leave a mark following his father's footsteps. The conflict here isn't his formidable and unforgiving nature laying spike strips on his trail but Roy's own catharsis.
The slow-burn narrative is dedicatedly committed to Roy's story, his ways and thoughts as such, but the spectacle part of the movie never loses its heart. The further we explore the desolated surface of the moon or the dusty terrains of Mars before reaching Neptune, the heavier the introspection of the film gets. Roy's expedition with multiple stops in between also provides director James Gray with numerous opportunities to envision and explore contrasting worlds and catastrophic events. But the answers we tend to request are simply out of our reach.
The resonance of Ad Astra can be also attributed to its grim vision of the future of humankind and science. The near future is a time of both hope and conflict, says the movie in the opening credits, and as far as the materialist conception of history goes the edgewise spark of resistance is felt in Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) expressing her indignation over a hierarchical pattern of existence.
The world building in Ad Astra consists of bewildering attention to detail and is a great achievement in production design. The International Space Antenna, which is the setting of the first blow resulting from the surge, is a huge man-made structure that ranges from the ground and extends to outer space! And Brad Pitt in free fall from the top of it looks breathtaking on screen. From the cold and stark lunar territory comprising subway-like stations to the bright and warm ambience of the red planet with striking and dimly lit interiors, which carries shades of Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the imagery is astonishing and appeals to the senses. The action comes along at random and is brief but more than the sum of its parts. A Mad Max-style chase sequence on the Moon involving space pirates and laser guns, a thrilling component of the film, is directed skillfully so as to make sure that the sequence is far from the chases of Star Wars and Marvel.
Apart from the film's splendid visuals and sound design, the psychodrama's real strength is its exploration of an area that is darker than space. An extraordinary expedition of self-redemption, where the search for one's father is also about discovering a father within oneself and realizing that what's at the far end also keeps us tethered to the ground, Ad Astra's journey is additionally benefited by its sublime score by Max Richter and Lorne Balfe. Roy's inner monologues and a conscious voiceover by Pitt makes Ad Astra's experience a captivating and emotionally effective one. It is an endearing space opera where Brad Pitt is the real star.