Rating: (3.5 stars)
In English, “Ad Astra” means “to the stars,” but it’s precisely the film’s earthbound emotional truths that give it heft, meaning and grandeur. After Brad Pitt’s mellow, deceptively simple supporting performance in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” this far more subtle and technically challenging turn reminds viewers yet again that a movie star who started as a pretty face and morphed into a thoughtful and daring producer has been a superb actor all along.
In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it). The net effect is that “Ad Astra” feels both familiar and confidently of itself, all the more boldly affecting by being unafraid to acknowledge the forebears it explicitly invokes.
Fans of “First Man” will appreciate “Ad Astra’s” rattling opening sequence, when Space Command Maj. Roy McBride (Pitt) hurtles through near-space while building the world’s largest antenna on Earth. Anyone familiar with Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” will recognize the artistic DNA of Roy’s journey when he is assigned to travel to Neptune to retrieve a rogue astronaut (Tommy Lee Jones), who just happens to be his father. Admirers of such mournful futuristic meditations as “Gravity,” “Arrival” and “Solaris” will understand Roy’s somber reflections on grief and loss as he encounters feelings he has successfully compartmentalized for most of his life.
And we haven’t even mentioned “2001: A Space Odyssey” yet.
With so many references swirling around its atmosphere, “Ad Astra” skirts dangerously close to being derivative. But in the capable hands of writer-director James Gray, it becomes its own sturdy, unflashy example of speculative filmmaking that is less interested in whiz-bang special effects and otherworldly creatures than in enduring philosophical questions about what we take with us — or heedlessly throw away — on the technological and existential journeys we call progress. In the course of this handsome, classically structured hero’s quest, Gray posits some playful ideas about the commercialization of space travel (the hot towels in first class will always be too small, apparently), as well as more cautionary notions regarding unfettered research, militarization and human nature that is just as feckless at the edge of the solar system as it is on the blue marble we call home.
Gray, who has said he set out to make the most realistic science fiction movie ever made, doesn’t stint on cool stuff: “Ad Astra” is full of contoured space gear, cosmic rays, antimatter and secured communication lasers. There are several memorable sequences, both in terms of frightening action and the evolving aesthetics of human settlement through the years.
But having clearly consulted with experts as to what will be possible in space exploration in the near future, Gray wisely throws the whizbangery away, relegating them to the background of the movie’s most spectacular special effect: its lead actor. As the icily competent, pathologically controlled McBride, Pitt delivers one of the finest performances of his career as a character whose self-imposed isolation bears more than a fleeting resemblance to the empyrean heights of his own celebrity. He communicates volumes simply through his eyes (you often can’t see much more underneath the puffy white suit and amber-tinted helmet), and a narration that stands with Martin Sheen’s in “Apocalypse Now” as an example of vocal performance at its most powerfully expressive.
There are moments in “Ad Astra” when nods to that movie — as well as the ghostly presence of “2001” — feel so obvious as to be distracting, when the solemn, contemplative tone teeters toward the lugubrious. But Gray executes the story with such skillful elegance, and Pitt is so compelling, that the homages feel like organic parts of a continuum rather than direct lifts. As if to announce the beginning of good-movie season, “Ad Astra” arrives as an original, well-made movie that’s as substantive as it is entertaining, propelled by a star turn all the more impressive for being so restrained and deeply personal. It’s a terrific ride, yes, but also a provocative meditation on masculinity, the things we choose to cherish or squander, and other eternal verities of life that swirl, unresolved, while our little blue marble continues to spin.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence, bloody images and brief strong language. 122 minutes