• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Brad Pitt's stellar performance in Ad Astra

directed by James Gray

As an astronaut on a mission to find his lost-in-space father, Brad Pitt shines.

The setting for this wondrous and rhapsodic new film is a fraught near-future in which space travel has become routine. It’s discomfiting, though perhaps not surprising, to find that life on the Moon and Mars has been turned into a series of concrete hallways, duty-free lounges and chain restaurants. There’s a war for resources going on in the background, and Virgin Galactic will ferry you to the Moon while charging $125 for a blanket, thanks very much.

Our stolid guide to the galaxy is veteran astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt). He is on a mission to find his astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones) last heard of 30 years ago, somewhere near Neptune – the same spot from which mysterious power surges, which are causing havoc on Earth, have been radiating.

In McBride, we have a sci-fi Captain Benjamin L Willard headed for a heart of darkness, and this interplanetary Apocalypse Now substitutes lunar rovers and rocket ships for choppers and patrol boats. The younger McBride’s trip into deep space is plagued by growing doubt and mania, his rigid military posture cracking and crumbling. But here’s the thing about a good leading actor such as Pitt: the pores and twitches and wrinkles of a face can be just as moving, just as involving, as the craters and mountains of other worlds.

Stowed in the film’s cargo hold is the baggage of space movies past. One doesn’t have to look very hard for nods to 2001, Solaris, Interstellar or Alien. It is to director James Gray’s credit that Ad Astra enriches these cinematic debts, rather than merely quoting from them.

There are times, however, when the picture bends to tradition. McBride’s estranged wife (a cameo from Liv Tyler, though, after 1998’s Armageddon, not the first time she’s played the partner of a spaceman trying to save the world) is one of the few women around. She’s an evocation rather than a character.

And even though Ad Astra is hauntingly gorgeous from title card to end credit –  rich contrasts of gold, grey, white, and blue – I rather wish the director had dwelt longer on sublime spacescapes, that “glimpse of the infinite”, as McBride intones. Jupiter is glimpsed in a mere drive-by, for example. 

Nevertheless, what flowers from this furtive, ecstatic voyage into the unknown is a reminder: that beyond the furthest reaches, there probably isn’t anything that will answer our most existential questions. It is back on this hunk of rock that we find everything worth saving. This Earth, this clutch of people, are all we have.



Video: 20th Century Fox

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.