Ad Astra literally means “to the stars.” In this case, star Brad Pitt has been left to carry this entire space journey film — and he does a pretty good job of it.
It’s a tough ask for a film story that has so many stories within it. Pitt plays Roy McBride, a successful astronaut following in the footsteps of his late dad (Tommy Lee Jones) and perhaps sacrificing everyone and everything else that makes up his life to do it.
It becomes obvious early on that Roy has created a highly disciplined life on the outside with major internal conflicts. He cuts off his emotions to keep his blood pressure at a healthy rate and performs the same tasks every day, like all of us just doing life.
Yet you never get the feeling that he enjoys any of it. It seems like there’s an explosion right around the corner, waiting to happen. That explosion comes in the form of a chance to find out if his heroic father really died in space. Anyway, that’s enough spoilers.
Bard Pitt also serves as executive producer on this film under his production company Plan B Entertainment. No doubt about it, he has the company of some heavy hitters, i.e., Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and Tommy Lee Jones, but all three of these more-than-worthy co-stars have very little screen time and seemingly even less to do during that time.
It’s notable that Sutherland and Jones are reunited on film for the first time since Space Cowboys. However, since their story arcs are so far apart, it doesn’t really matter.
Negga, a 2017 Oscar nominee (Loving) does her best with a role that could have been played by quite a few good actresses. Since Ad Astra is set sometime in the future, her role as an American space (Mars) superintendent is simply another catalyst in this space odyssey to get Pitt’s character to the reveal. Hopefully, she got paid well.
Tommy Lee Jones is great as usual, and his scenes appear to bring out the maturity of Pitt’s character as well as Pitt the actor. In these scenes, it’s apparent that Pitt has learned how to allow concentration on his character’s situation to lead his emoting. There’s no self-conscious, actorly over-doing of it. In these moments, the actor conveys the weariness of living, sadness of hurt and disappointment, happiness in seeing his parent, and the foreboding compromise that is often necessary to be a good adult son or daughter (or person in general).
Despite the usual stories about all the lotions, potions, and plastic surgery techniques used by celebrities (and this writer has written many), Pitt seems to be aging gracefully, allowing every line and bag to show in a film that is not lovingly lit. He’s still very handsome, though. His haircut is reminiscent of quite a few earlier films — Se7en and Twelve Monkeys, Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen to name a few.
However, gone is the pretty-boy heartthrob of the 1990s and early 2000s. His Roy is not a character like, say, Billy Beane in Moneyball (this writer wishes he’d won for that), Lieutenant Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds, or Benjamin in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He’s not even that long-haired guy in Legends of the Fall — but I digress. His performance in Tree of Life does slightly come to mind.
Ad Astra is instead a chance for many stories in this one film: unresolved problems with parents; the inability to love strongly, fully (Roy’s girlfriend is played by Liv Tyler in flashbacks); and because of this, the excitement and mystery of space and the mystery within the story’s science fiction and action scenes.
Under the direction of James Gray (The Lost City of Z), Pitt’s performance is subtle and haunting. But because his character is so internalized, it’s hard to know him and really root for his Roy. It would have been nice to know a little more about Roy’s girlfriend, a little more about Roy’s mom. What happened after her husband’s death? Is she still alive?
Also, it was an unfulfilled feeling to have such gifted actors in throwaway scenes that are obviously just a way of moving the story/film forward.
What is certain is that there is a lot of Brad Pitt screen time. At just a little over two hours, fans of the man will be pleased.
The film also stars Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, and Bobby Nish.
Ad Astra opened in limited release Friday, September 20.
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Diedre Johnson is a Los Angeles-based former staff writer covering entertainment whose work has appeared in Variety, The New York Daily News, TV Guide.com, The Crisis, Vogue Japan and Italia, and Harper’s Bazaar China, among others