Being a close onscreen relation of Brad Pitt can be a potentially risky business these days. Earlier this summer the Fight Club actor played a stuntman who may — or may not! — have killed his wife Billie (Rebecca Gayheart) in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now, in Ad Astra, his character may — or may not! — be planning something similarly terminal for his own father, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones.
In this science fiction film from director and cowriter James Gray (The Lost City of Z, The Immigrant) Pitt plays Major Roy McBride a near-future soldier-scientist whose father, a legendary astronaut named H. Clifford Bride, left earth for Neptune to search for intelligent alien life when Roy was just a teenager. Nothing has been heard from McBride, nor his team, in sixteen years, but the authorities believe he may be responsible for a series of electrical surges which are causing catastrophic events back on earth. Pitt’s Roy is enlisted to travel first to the moon and then on to Mars, where he will record a message for his father, and then, hopefully, move on to a face-to-face meeting with the man who effectively deserted his family so many years before and may now be threatening life-as-we-know-it.
Thus begins a picaresque tale full of dangers and self-discovery for Roy who is joined, at least initially, on his quest by the knows-more-than-he’s-letting-on Colonel Pruitt, played by Donald Sutherland. During his sojourn in a complex beneath the surface of Mars, an underground facility overseen by Ruth Negga’s character Helen Lantos, Roy becomes consumed with feelings of suspicion and paranoia as oppressive as his bleak, windowless surroundings. Along the way, our hero repeatedly establishing his space adventurer bona fides while also revealing in voiceover his doubts about his father, his mission, and himself.
If you’re thinking, “Boy, this sounds a lot like Apocalypse Now-in space,” then it’s doubtful anyone involved with Ad Astra would disagree. Relocating Francis Coppola’s Vietnam War film to the far reaches of space is an intriguing idea, and Gray creates a genuinely believable series of sci-fi vignettes, in cahoots with his production designer Kevin Thompson, among others. The result is a genuine space epic which also succeeds in being a very personal film, thanks in large part to Pitt’s performance. A hard turn from his smirkily engaging Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt manages to imbue his character with man-of-action stoicism and open-wound fragility. The result may culminate in the freezing vacuum of space, but is always in touch with its beating, and warm, heart. B+
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