As name-brand franchises snowball and the star system wanes, it’s impressive how elegantly Brad Pitt has become a bastion of the marquee name. Established as a pretty boy, he has constantly reinvented himself between turns of wily virility, comedic virtuoso, shit-eating grins and, just this summer, an assured zen in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Just two months later, the star is better than ever before as he gives a dramatic slant on that same stoicism. In James Gray’s science-fiction weepie “Ad Astra,” he plays astronaut Roy McBride, a man whose superpower is his ability to maintain a moderate heart rate, even when he’s plummeting thousands of feet toward the Earth’s surface.
After surviving the opening tumble, the U.S. Space Command appoints Roy to investigate the base of the Lima project: a laboratory located along the rings of Neptune, established decades before to transmit signals in hopes of making contact with other intelligent life. Long since radio silent, colossal energy surges are now originating from its location, posing a potentially cataclysmic threat to mankind. SpaceCom appoints Roy for his coolheaded professionalism, but also because he is the son of Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a trailblazer from the institution’s heyday and the leader behind the Lima project.
Roy’s journey begins aboard a Virgin Atlantic shuttle to the moon, during which he’s charged $125 for a blanket. When he lands, the only color in the gray metallic base blares from souvenir shops and a Subway. One is reminded of passengers sleeping through a lunar-bound Pan Am flight in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” another great prospective fiction that astutely notes human accomplishment’s inevitable slip into the commonplace, in which the technological sublime isn’t even worth being awake for.
This unimpressed future stands as the product of decades of scientific devotion, fueled by an obsessed ambition that is still shared among some of the astronauts Roy meets on his journey. They honor him as the son of a legend and rhapsodize his father’s accomplishments.
It takes a true romantic like them to endure the merciless, unforgiving landscape of space. The only good decisions are mathematical ones and the second anybody loses their pragmatism is the moment they sign their death warrant. Pitt’s lead performance is tremendously rigorous in its stiff, rehearsed motion and assured decision-making, but his eyes reveal a heart-shredding vulnerability underlying his actions. As the film continues, the actor unravels a man who has clinically removed every fiber of his humanity to fashion himself into an efficient, tactically-employed tool.
Roy follows in his absent father’s footsteps to the bluest planet in the solar system, venturing further into his own broken self as well. He is provided some assistance along the way — an aging colleague of his father (Donald Sutherland) and a suspicious Mars-born colony leader (Ruth Negga), both terrific — but the brutal linearity of his mission ensures that nobody sticks around for long. Gray employs a radically different approach to each environment, his and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s brilliant use of color conveying the unimaginable distance of the voyage. The hushed austerity of beige military offices are departed for muted rover chases against moon pirates and decrepit brick red colonies, conspicuously depopulated save for the occasional stray dog. As Roy’s surroundings become progressively sparser, the film clings harder to its lead. Pitt’s face becomes another celestial body, rising and setting among the cosmos in desperate, devastating close-ups.
Gray is one of the finest filmmakers to emerge from the ‘90s, a talent tantamount to a Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson who has never come close to gaining the street cred he so richly deserved. After 20-some years and a series of richly rendered urban dramas, he’s finally gotten his belated swing within the studio system and it somehow contains his most lyrical and internal storytelling yet.
The project hasn’t completely snuck through unscathed. “Ad Astra” possesses a slight stink of studio meddling with its overbearing, extraneous narration and an oddly tidy ending that doesn’t feel of a piece with the surrounding movie (a distinction it shares with the theatrical cut of “Blade Runner”). One could hypothesize plenty of concessions, but it almost feels rude to get hung up on such things. It would mean losing out on one of the most confident studio films in years, one that wears its heart on its sleeve, patiently explores the depths of its characters’ sorrow and prays that the unloved can find the strength to love themselves.