For the second time this year, Brad Pitt has delivered a film that shatters audience expectations. Some went into Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood expecting a flashy, vengeful bloodbath. Instead, they received a hazy hang-out film, only slightly blood-spattered. Some will go into James Gray’s
BrAd Astra expecting an action-packed cosmic thriller filled with high-speed moon buggy chases and laser blaster fights. Instead, they’ll receive a languid character study centered on Roy McBride (Pitt), a top-level Sad Astra-naut who desperately needs to go to therapy.
Rather, McBride’s superiors opt to send him to space on a deeply emotional mission to make contact with his estranged Dad Astra (Tommy Lee Jones), further destabilizing his already shaky mental state. As they explain to him the possibility of his father’s survival, his entire posture almost imperceptibly changes. His eyes twitch with the effort of repressing his true emotions, and his chest rises and falls with a newfound velocity, indicating that his static pulse that famously never goes above 80 bpm is pounding away underneath the polished layers of his military uniform.
It’s at this moment when you remember there’s a reason why Pitt is the most famous Hollywood movie star on the planet. Lurking beneath the glimmering veneer of his impossibly handsome face and consistently objectified body is a swirling cosmos of raw, dark emotion –– an inside-out geode that only cracks open when presented with the right script, the right director, and the right timing. In the past, the right directors have been David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino, the former generally pushing for gritty, dramatic performances and the latter mining Pitt’s deifically cool charisma for comedy. This new partnership with James Gray leans completely in the Fincher direction, but with a much more emotional core than what we’ve previously seen –– aside from when Pitt tearfully belts with doomed agony, “WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!” in Se7en (1995).
But the most apt comparison would be to Pitt’s performance as Mr. O’Brien in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Both films are about the turbulent trials of worshipping a father who doesn’t seem to love you back, both are aimed at artsier audiences rather than the mainstream, and both feature ubiquitous, philosophizing voice-overs that highlight the protagonists’ interiorities and hammer home the films’ overarching themes. Is it necessary to explain exactly what McBride is thinking as he somberly gazes out the spaceship window like a Sofia Coppola teen, accentuated by Max Richter’s mournful score? Probably not. Is the prose of these brooding voiceover monologues at least written with a tactfulness that highlights the clash between McBride’s analytical way of thinking and his self-flagellating way of feeling? Absolutely.
The antiseptic tone of the blue/gray color palette implies a story devoid of passion, and initially, this is what it feels like. Then we move from Earth to the Moon, which has been colonized and turned into a bustling commercial spaceport ala 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick’s essential sci-fi which Gray and team seem to have taken quite a bit of inspiration from, particularly the leisurely pacing that forces you to just sit with what you’ve heard, and the boldly hued production design. The governmental drabness of the spaceport is punctuated by occasional blocks of orange testing areas, and the sudden bursts of color seem to cement one of the film’s central messages: emotions will leak out, no matter how hard one represses them.
Ad Astra contains multitudes of themes and ideas, but perhaps the most succinct summary of them all is simply fear. The fear of confrontation, of loneliness, of vulnerability, of rejection, of disappointment, of becoming your father, of rage, of loss, of love, of fear itself. One of the most frustrating aspects of fear is the social stigma attached to the expression of it, especially for those like McBride who are trapped in the suffocating chokehold of masculinity. As a military man, he must constantly put on this mask of omnipotent authority, even if he feels like crumbling on the inside.
In the semi-dystopian world of Ad Astra, emotions are discouraged –– the only entity to ever truly ask McBride how he feels is a faceless AI tasked with assessing his psychological state. When one becomes “over-emotional,” as indicated by mandatory heart rate sensors, one is relegated to a “comfort room:” a clinical space with relaxing slideshows of flowers or ocean waves projected onto the walls, and a single bed resting in the center. Sure, this may help short-term, but the second you leave that area you’re back in the bleak void of the real world. Essentially, these rooms are the equivalent of colleges bringing dogs to campus for cuddle sessions instead of actually investing in mental health counseling. For a film that largely takes place in space, its politics feel surprisingly earthbound, with McBride’s voiceover lamenting the disgust he feels at our insatiable greed for resources, calling humans “world-eaters” for colonizing the moon.
Life on Mars isn’t any more liberated. Here, McBride meets Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), director of the red planet’s base. After Lantos leads McBride to a top-secret meeting, the man in charge informs her that details of the mission are above her clearance level. Instead of cutting here, the camera lingers on the back of Lantos’s head until she turns around, revealing her quietly raging expression as she stalks away. This moment doubles as narrative foreshadowing, as well as a demonstration that, sadly, systemic sexism and racism in the workplace is inescapable — even on a planet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth.
But as subversive as the cosmo-drama can be at times, it still falls victim to a few tired tropes, such as McBride’s wife (Liv Tyler) who stays on Earth to pine after her man on the moon. Since the film clearly encourages the prioritization of human connection over everything, she functions as a lazily written symbol for, what else, Love! It’s a noble message, but one that has been delivered in the same exact way since the beginning of Career Man cinema.
Nevertheless, this is far from a machismo-soaked ode to the rusting altar of stoic manliness. It’s a careful, thoughtful critique of the ways in which the rigidity of masculinity erodes men’s minds, erroneously convincing them that emotions are weaknesses instead of the strengths they so clearly are. In this increasingly cruel world, Ad Astra serves as a much-needed reminder that it’s okay, encouraged even, to live and to love freely. It’s hard to be Mad Astra about that.