In space, no one can feel your pain.
At least, that’s the conceit of the latest space odyssey to hit the big screen, writer/director James Gray’s “Ad Astra.”
Melancholy and malaise abound in a slow-burning film ripe with wistful soliloquies delivered as a character-informing score for Gray’s expressionless short story drawn out over two hours.
Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked with a classified mission to travel across the solar system in search of his long-lost father, a heralded astronaut and scientist in his own regard thought dead until the doomed expedition of the elder McBride rears its ugly head on Earth.
Each moment in “Ad Astra” is deliberate and considered, allowing events to breathe naturally without rush. In this art-house film with a big studio budget, what happens plot-wise takes a backseat to emotional subtlety.
Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career as the younger McBride, delivering a stoic, magnetically pensive turn reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s work as Neil Armstrong in last year’s “First Man.”
The performance is largely internalized with Pitt only letting audiences into Roy’s psyche through a haunting narration and the faintest whisper of emotion on his face. Roy’s primary character trait – an exceptional cool under pressure calculated as never exceeding 80 heartbeats per minute – serves as the film’s narrative pulse and lays the foundation for Pitt’s entire performance.
As audiences follow Pitt throughout the solar system, the emotional wear and tear begins to bubble under the surface in a complex, understated performance that will resonate fully with viewers who can identify with Roy’s personal struggles. Those who fail to buy in to Pitt’s subtextual work will likely find “Ad Astra” too tedious and pedantic for their liking.
In limited screen time, Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones haunts the entire project with his looming presence as Roy’s father, Clifford. Without much development of his own, Jones’ Clifford challenges and provokes Roy in compelling, interesting ways that will leave audiences pondering the ramifications long after leaving the theaters.
Everything – and especially everyone – else doesn’t really matter in the greater context of the film except in how their appearance and/or disappearance affects Pitt’s Roy.
There is a strong supporting cast in “Ad Astra,” but on the whole, they wander in and out of the periphery of Gray’s film in such a tertiary way that even Donald Sutherland is only of use to provide character context to Roy’s journey than serve any actual purpose to the plot.
Technically proficient and understated in its beauty, “Ad Astra” has moments of action grandeur largely obscured by extensive sequences that highlight the vast emptiness of space.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema subtly acknowledges the loneliness felt by Pitt’s Roy by keeping the visuals sharp yet elusively unremarkable, as if the voids Roy looks out on are as desolate and unremarkable as they seem to the average viewer.
The camerawork keeps audiences framed in on Roy in every moment either by pushing in on Pitt’s somber profile or placing viewers within his mind’s eye as events unfold around him.
While it may be off-putting to some audiences, what doesn’t happen in “Ad Astra” is often more important than what actually does, forcing viewers to feel the dread of inevitability surrounding Roy’s mission.
“Ad Astra” is exactly the kind of artistic, character-driven drama that usually succeeds come awards season, though Gray’s film may not gain the widespread support necessary to gain serious consideration come Oscar season.
Pitt’s terrific performance here may actually prove to be more useful in a run for the veteran actor in Best Supporting Actor for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” as voters aggregate his work for both films to justify voting for a nomination/win for a single film as a celebration of Pitt’s year.
Some audiences may find the film’s slow burn style too tedious for their liking and not in line with the aggressive marketing and trailers for “Ad Astra.”
Those willing to look beyond the simple plot structure will find Gray’s film a wonderfully nuanced character study that’s bold enough visually to enjoy on the big screen, especially in the IMAX format.