Sometimes, “on the nose” just works.
There’s a certain subset of the moviegoing population who seem to crave subtlety above all else in their cinema. Show us, don’t tell us. Say something profound, but don’t say it right out in the open. Make us interpret. Make us think. Make us work for it. It’s certainly an understandable craving, and when the right filmmaker comes along and sates that craving, real magic happens. But sometimes the magic comes when a gifted filmmaker with something real to say manages to break through all the whispers about subtlety and just shouts their ideas at you through a blockbuster-sized bullhorn.
“Ad Astra” is that kind of movie. It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but surprisingly it makes that work in its favor. Thanks to dazzling visuals, a clear-eyed sense of story and theme, and two gripping performances at its center, James Gray’s new film about the journeys we take both within and without is one of 2019’s great genre masterpieces.
The film’s disinterest in subtlety first comes through in the form of persistent voiceover from Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), the astronaut at the heart of the story. Roy’s a good astronaut, which the film shows us very early on by giving us a peek at how he deals with a crisis in the moment. He’s not just good, but preternaturally calm, able to keep his pulse low and his wits intact even when things seem to be quite literally falling apart around him. Roy’s ability to hold himself together is tested, though, when he’s brought in on a top secret new mission. Strange energy flares emitting from way out in the solar system are causing power surges and electrical failures across the globe, and officials believe they’re emitting from a long-lost space exploration project that was led by Roy’s legendary father (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy’s mission, what takes him “ad astra” (“to the stars”), is to reach out to his father and ask for his help in stopping the surges.
So yes, as the film’s heavy-handed trailers have already told you, this is a movie about a search for connection with an absentee father that just happens to span the stars. Like I said, it’s not subtle, but “Ad Astra” is also a classic case of filmmaking that revels in the journey more than the destination.
Yes, the emotional core of the film – a son who learned all of his instincts to repress and push forward from his father, who is no longer there to give him closure – is both simple and predictable, but it’s also elegant. Gray retains an inherent and masterful understanding of what’s at the heart of his story throughout, and anchors it in Roy’s voiceover, which often comes in the form of mandatory psychological evaluations he has to participate in by simply talking into a computer about his mental state. What could be a tedious plot device in the hands of another filmmaker becomes a deep dive into the psyche and emotional journey of a character, even as his physical journey in the film takes him to the moon, Mars and beyond, with all manner of complications in between. The voiceover weaves in and out of the narrative, and as it does we get the sense of a man who’s learned to isolate and compartmentalize as part of a cycle of isolation and toxic repression. He’s a cog in a machine, a participant in a system that a part of him has always resisted. This creates a line of tension running through the film, wrapping around its steady, rhythmic heartbeat. We long to see it snap, and long to see Roy grow and change.
This is, of course, impossible to communicate without a great actor in the center of it all, and in a year already buoyed by his wonderful work in “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood,” Pitt delivers once again. He is a movie star in the same way that people like Cary Grant and Steve McQueen were movie stars, because he can inject tons of fierce emotion into a look, or into the simple competence that comes with being able to do the job. He is able to completely convince the viewer that he is a man who’s devoted his life to the pursuit of space exploration, and we never question just how good he is at that. That simple, unequivocal swagger is then infused with an intense emotional vulnerability that Pitt is able to convey even when he’s not speaking. He is one of the finest actors of his generation because he is able to captivate us simply by allowing us to watch him think, and that’s a gift that “Ad Astra” never squanders.
Yes, “Ad Astra” is on the nose in terms of the themes it would like to explore and the emotional beats it wants to hit. What makes that glorious of lack of subtlety rewarding is the way in which it wants to take us on the journey: Through a stunning, futuristic, rocket-fueled voyage of imagination and hope. It’s a sci-fi gem that’s well worth the trip.
‘Ad Astra’ is in theaters now.