Of the countless realisations one makes in life, perhaps none is more unforgiving than the actualisation of one’s own incompetence, of inadequacy in the face of curiosity. If the human race’s pursuit of knowledge is what drives its faith in progress, then it finds its greatest enemy in limitation, in reconciling the fact that there may not be an answer at the end of the journey, no profound truth awaiting discovery, no life after death.
But if ever there was a redeeming quality to human nature, it is its unwavering spirit of persistence in spite of these limitations; in 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot onto the moon, forever altering space travel. What was once believed to be an impossibility had come to fruition, commemorating the triumph of that very quality of persistence. It is in these moments that the limitations to our acquisition of knowledge often become the knowledge itself, a quest unique to whomever uncovers it.
This is the quest director James Gray asks his viewers to venture on in his newest film Ad Astra, the follow-up to his 2016 hit The Lost City of Z. When Earth is threatened by electric shocks, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) must travel to Neptune in order to stop the likely source — a decade old failed mission led by his father (an always towering Tommy Lee Jones), H. Clifford McBride, to find intelligent life around the blue planet.
In a year of marked visibility, Pitt has once again proven himself a force to be reckoned with. Following rave reviews for his performance in Quentin Tarantino’s putative penultimate picture Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, the veteran actor returns to screens once again this year to star in Ad Astra as an astronaut trying to find the answers to questions that have haunted him his entire life.
Pitt’s sublime performance as a man troubled by the loss of his father is of the actor’s finest in recent memory thanks to the humility and vulnerability he brings to the character. Distraught but high-functioning, defeated yet hopeful, Pitt’s Roy works best when he embodies the contradictions that make him so hyper-aware of his emotions yet utterly unable to access them. It’s a somber, almost brutal role that demands the actor simultaneously alienate and captivate viewers in a film that features few scenes where Pitt shares his screen time. It takes a special kind of talent to carry a film almost entirely, and Pitt transcends at every turn.
Co-starring in the film are Liv Tyler as Roy’s wife, Donald Sutherland as McBride senior’s long-time friend and fellow astronaut, and Ruth Negga as a Mars native. While each character has his or her own conciliatory moment, the film infuriatingly underutilises the talent it boasts in its supporting cast, especially in its female characters who exist primarily as plot devices or details to further develop Roy’s character. In fact, Negga’s character Helen, whose parents were also astronauts in the original mission alongside Roy’s father, is largely useless. For a writer/director duo so talented, such a missed opportunity leaves a notable impression on a film that’s breathtaking in most respects.
Setting a picture in space is doubtless an undertaking. Since 2013’s Alfonso-Cuaron-helmed Gravity, the genre has seen an almost yearly entry (Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, and most recently Claire Denis’s High Life) — one more complex than the next — that has attempted to reconcile its extraterrestrial setting with its universal themes. James Gray’s Ad Astra is no different; from exhilarating chase sequences on moon rovers to vicious space monkeys and the absolutely petrifying notion of an Applebee’s on a colonised moon, the film provides no shortage of action sequences (magnificently scored by Max Richter) despite being contemplative and pensive in tone for the majority of its two-hour runtime.
As interesting as these sequences are, however, they work less in service of propelling the plot and more to build a rather distracting and vague portrait of the world in which the film is situated. Still, Gray and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose credits include Interstellar and Dunkirk, manage to make a movie that employs space to elevate its plot as opposed to indulging in it for visual pleasure (though there’s plenty of that in there as well).
At its heart, Ad Astra is a story of two broken people. More High Life than Interstellar, more First Man than The Martian, the Heart of Darkness-inspired film is a meditation on the darkest corners of curiosity and the cost and compromises one must make in order to satiate it. Sometime in the distant future, Roy McBride ventures into space to find the answer to the biggest question of his life, only to discover that some questions are more important than others and some answers are better left unquestioned — for better or for worse.