‘Ad Astra’ is simply stellar

Jake Coyle & Ann Hornaday

AP/ THE WASHINGTON POST – Having stayed rigorously close to his native New York for much of his career, writer-director James Gray has lately been making up for lost time. His last film, The Lost City of Z, journeyed into the Amazon, circa early 20th Century.

His latest, Ad Astra, skitters across the solar system like a stone skipped through space.

Both films aren’t merely changes in setting.

They’re inherently about leaving home — the sacrifice entailed, the wonders to be discovered, the cost of obsessions that require pursuit. It’s fitting that they follow Gray’s masterpiece, The Immigrant, a profound and melancholic tale of passage. Whether orbiting New York or Neptune, Gray has been on the move for some time.

Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut in the near future, is easily the most expensive production yet for Gray (We Own the Night, Two Lovers). Its timing is fortuitous. Coming on the heels of Pitt’s radiant performance in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Ad Astra seems almost like an encore amid all the (deserved) celebration of its lead performer, a singular star in a movie universe with few that can match his luster.

But Ad Astra, more intimate than it is majestic, is much more than a rocket-fuelled vehicle for its star. It’s a ruminative, mythical space adventure propelled by father-son issues of cosmic proportions. Pitt’s Roy McBride is ordered to the far reaches of the solar system to make contact with his previously presumed dead father, a legendary space explorer named H Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). He’s feared to have gone mad, and is suspected of having something to do with power surges playing havoc with Earth’s electronics.

In the film’s staggering first moments, McBride is working on a miles-high antenna, like Jack on a beanstalk to the sky, when a surge sweeps over it. Explosions follow and McBride plummets through the stratosphere. Ad Astra is mapped like Apocalypse Now. (Gray is so devoted a Coppola fan that he ranks dinners by the director’s oeuvre .) Instead of an ominous, top-secret trek down a Vietnamese river toward Colonel Kurtz, McBride is hopping between planetary stations (a string of colonised bases exist on the moon and Mars, with Neptune the next destination) en route to another missing hero-turned-psychopath, with a mission to potentially search and destroy. That this is Roy’s father, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a youngster, adds significantly to the implications of the journey.

Pitt’s astronaut is a solitary figure, taciturn and cool under pressure. Much of the charisma he so effortlessly displayed in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has gone into hiding, replaced with a more pensive and subtle performance. His space voyage comes in contact with a handful of colourful figures, all of them underused (Donald Sutherland, Natasha Lyonne, Ruth Negga, a pair of rabid space baboons). But Roy’s chiefly in dialogue with himself and the old video transmissions from his father.

In copious amounts of voice over and frequent confessional-like psychological evaluations, Roy narrates his psychological voyage through the stars. “I will not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important,” he said early in the film, pledging his devotion to the mission. It’s a line that will come to mean something else to Roy as he gets further and further from home (he leaves behind an ex-wife, played by Liv Tyler), and goes deeper and deeper into his — and his father’s — obsessions. The nature of ambition gets deconstructed. Grandiosity gets toppled by elemental humanity. Gray, of course, is only the most recent master-filmmaker to seek existential truths in the remoteness of space. There was Claire Denis’ High Life earlier this year and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014. The latter bears some similar DNA with Ad Astra. But Nolan lingered much more on the life and family left behind by its space traveller (Matthew McConaughey). Gray, a more restrained director, gives us little of Roy’s earthly life, something that dulls the movie’s emotional arc when Roy begins to look backward.

Where I think Ad Astra misses the mark is in so closely marrying its subtext with its text. Roy is navigating his relationship to his absent father both literally and figuratively. Daddy issues, alone, can take you only so far, even if it’s to Neptune. Aside from verging on the one-note, that focus constricts the very linear, very self-contained Ad Astra, a taut but inflexible chamber piece in a genre given to symphony. That minimalism, though, is also part of the considerable appeal of Ad Astra. The placid surface of Pitt’s carefully calibrated performance slowly cracks.

Scene from the movie. PHOTOS: AP/ THE WASHINGTON POST
Brad Pitt stares into the abyss in ‘Ad Astra’
FROM LEFT: Donald Sutherland, Brad Pitt and Sean Blakemore in a scene from the film
Tommy Lee Jones in a scene from ‘Ad Astra’

Photos show scenes from the film

And it’s often riveting to watch how Gray remakes fairly familiar science-fiction terrain. Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who also shot Interstellar), Gray brings his typically formalist style and firm command to stripped-down scenes that approach the sublime. A dazzling chase sequence with buggy-riding pirates on the moon is depicted nearly soundlessly.

Gray has a gift for shrinking massive set pieces and enlarging private dramas.

In Ad Astra, he travels 2.7 billion miles through space. It’s a long way to go for a talk with your dad, but a fair distance for uncovering a ray of hope in a lifeless void.

Kick masculinity to the curb: ‘We have to redefine it’

A look comes over Brad Pitt when he listens to James Gray that can only be described in one word: tickled.

And a little awed. Earlier this week, the actor and director visited Washington to premiere Ad Astra, a science-fiction drama in which Pitt plays an astronaut sent to Neptune to retrieve his father, who has been presumed dead. Gray conceived his idea in 2011 but it lay dormant until Pitt agreed to produce it in 2016; the film, both agree, changed profoundly in the ensuing years, becoming as much a meditation on middle-aged regret as a speculative glimpse into a space-age future.

“It’s a wild horse and it gets away from you,” said Gray, not just about Ad Astra but about every movie he’s tried to wrangle, including 2016’s The Lost City of Z. “It’s your job to make it beautiful as it runs away.”

Pitt barks out an admiring laugh at that turn of phrase, which happens frequently in the course of a fast-moving conversation that veers from Pitt’s recent publicity trip to Asia to the state of modern cinema.

The two men have been friends since the mid-1990s, Pitt said, and their back-and-forth always loosens him up. “Maybe it’s because James is so forthcoming about his missteps and embarrassments, which opens up a closed-down person like me to be (just) as open.”

Both Gray and Pitt see Ad Astra as a way to examine retrograde ideas about masculinity that are being questioned throughout the culture. “We have to redefine it,” Pitt said bluntly of the trope of the cool, emotionally remote hero. In fact, when the actor describes himself as “closed-down”, he could be talking about his own character. Space Command Major Roy McBride is compulsively self-controlled. There are cool space-travel scenes in Ad Astra, as well as eye-popping stunts, a battle with pirates on the moon, and a terrifying encounter on a biomedical research craft. But the film’s most impressive special effect might be Pitt himself, who delivers a carefully calibrated performance as a man going through a life-changing catharsis.

Pitt’s commanding lead portrayal in Ad Astra is all the more stunning for being so restrained and understated. Watching McBride first cultivate isolation, then break through it, might invite reflexive comparisons to Pitt’s own extreme fame. Although the 55-year-old actor said he’s not as closed-down as McBride, he admitted that there are parallels in the overwhelming loneliness of celebrity.

“Certainly when I first started out I felt lost, not understanding being cut off from the herd,” he said. “I always felt like there should be a manual or some kind of preparation for what it means to lose that kind of freedom, (to be) anonymous on the street.” Still, Pitt insisted, Ad Astra is “about more than that”.

“This was a big part of our conversations,” Pitt explained. “Understanding our pasts, what was ours, what was theirs, really digging into that. Which has become Roy’s journey, I think – going to the furthest reaches of the solar system to look at his past, before (he goes) forward in a freer state.”

As interested as Pitt is in redefining the male image, he’s also clearly invested in redefining American film. He founded the production company Plan B and has championed such filmmakers as Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and Ava DuVernay (Selma).

What many see as a Pitt’s attempt to use his white male privilege for good, he insists is nothing more than supporting artistic vision and bold storytelling. But there is no doubt that in an industry plagued by vexingly narrow ideas about what auteurs should look like, he and his co-executives have been willing to pull the lens back to an unusual degree.

“It’s our taste,” Pitt explained simply. “It’s our affliction, really. We were weaned on ‘70s films. And ‘70s films were not black and white. They were very complex and complicated and flawed studies. And it’s what I’m drawn to.”