The ambitious questions of ‘Ad Astra’

Brad Pitt and movies in space.

It’s been the day, the month, the summer, and the year of Brad Pitt. He’s shared that highest Internet honor with Keanu Reeves. While Keanu dominated the first half of 2019, Pitt has taken the virile title belt, jockeying for position by appearing on Ellen, avoiding the Oscars race, and starring in two massive films, one by Quentin Tarantino which I’m sure you’ve heard of, and James Gray’s new space odyssey Ad Astra.

Gray’s film is full of questions, some he cares to answer, some he prefers to leave dangling on the edge of space. The film’s plot interested me, but Gray’s character study on Brad Pitt as a man, a father, and a superstar was enthralling. It came in with huge expectations with a man at the height of his powers, focusing on his most vulnerable moments and delivering a space thriller, a bit of a generous categorization, for watchers to process.

Ad Astra asks these questions to Pitt, to Pitt’s alter ego Roy McBride, to the audience, and to society at large. Gray is attempting to tackle longstanding concerns and ideas in the span of two hours. It’s a film I enjoyed much more after reflection, and I’m already convinced a second viewing would act as a palate cleanser, rather than a bland main course that doesn’t satiate your hunger. I can’t stop thinking about Ad Astra, not about the film itself, but rather the uncertainties it can’t help raising.

Should we have the same profession as our parents?

In the film, Brad Pitt’s father was an astronaut, committed entirely to his job and to the places beyond Earth’s graspable elements. Pitt, playing McBride with self-efficacy and awareness, becomes an astronaut as well. His choice, a decision we’ve all thought about, to follow in his father’s footsteps is a choice with stages.

Stage 1: you idolize your father and you develop similar interests to him. This is more about acceptance than it is about passion. You, I, most people want to be loved by their fathers, so we pick up the same habits, learning about their professions. Stage 2: you reject your father (and/or mother) and want to be an individual. You’re in middle school and you decide to be your own person, choosing a path that your parents would never expect. Stage 3: you circle back around and are genuinely interested in the same profession as your father, or you find what you’re truly passionate about and follow that instead.

Many people I know have followed those stages at one point or another. There are of course exceptions, like Pitt, who falls somewhere in the middle of these stages. He hasn’t processed his father’s disappearance, or abandonment, and is dealing with decades of trauma throughout the film. He believes his father to be a hero, then a villain, then a hero once again, back to a villain, and finally just an old man that wanted to die. His choice to pursue his father’s livelihood has resulted in heartbreak and closure. He has been given the opportunity to save the world and lose his father in the same trip. Now that’s quite a job.

Pitt has the conflicting desires of wanting to be as successful as his father but also needing to be a better man than his father. He will never reach his father’s impact, nor stoop to his dad’s level of pain-infliction.

Answer: Roy McBride likely should have gone into real estate.

Ad Astra and Brad Pitt is a star.
Brad Pitt looking handsome. | 20th Century Fox

Does Brad Pitt look good in an space suit?

Come on. It’s Brad Pitt.

Answer: Yes. Of course. Why would we think otherwise?

What if our destiny, the path we choose to follow, is wrong?

Gray raises this contention through both Pitt’s portrayal of Roy McBride and his father, played by a wrinkly-as-ever Tommy Lee Jones as H. Clifford McBride.

Roy McBride seems to be an astronaut because he hoped to one day find his dad in space, while Clifford McBride was obsessed with finding intelligent life somewhere in the galaxy. Clifford believes that his destiny is to find extraterrestrial life, and Roy, as we find out throughout the film, is chasing a destiny of finding living up to his father’s name and finding him once he knows he’s alive. Ad Astra is addressing failure on both accounts. Clifford has failed in his efforts to find what he’s been looking for, while Roy finds exactly what he has always wanted, only to be let down in the most severe way possible.

Once we study in and graduate from college, we are expected, by society’s standards, to choose a career path and stick to it. We were required to pick a major for a reason.  More often that not though, we change, we grow, and we adapt, leading us to switch the path we’re marching on. This is pegged as a mid-life, or for myself and the people I orbit, a quarter-life crisis. Clifford even has a three-quarter-life crisis towards the end of the film.

But it’s far from that. We are gravitating closer to fulfillment, something Clifford McBride never took the time to feel, and something Roy McBride seems to be grasping by the end of the film. His destiny has been altered, and in that way, it wasn’t his destiny in the first place.

Answer: Gray doesn’t know, and neither does Pitt. We choose something and just hope that it’s right. When we get pulled in an opposite direction though, we need to follow that tug. 

Is Brad Pitt okay?

This is one is a bit tricky. Just like in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt is playing a version of himself. He’s a lonely man in Ad Astra, with no wife, no kids, and dedication to his job. His family is rife with instability, and he doesn’t seem to be nurturing anyone outside of himself. He’s one-track, plowing his way forward, causing death and destruction around him, despite his best intentions. In the end, he’s successful, but he took an awful woeful path along the way.

Pitt has been in the public eye since 1991, when he had a small but memorable role in Thelma & Louise.

He’s been engaged or married to Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, and Angelina Jolie, all massive stars. He has gone through very public breakups and even more public divorces. He has six kids with Jolie, all of whom have grown up in the eyes of paparazzi. According to IMDb, Pitt has appeared in 80 films and produced over 50 films. He’s a busy guy with a shocking amount of fame thrust his way, properly earned in most respects.

None of us know how lonely or happy Brad Pitt truly is. Every long-form interview he gives, and he’s given quite a few in the past half-year, details his struggles but also his laid-back triumphs. Roy McBride is similar to Brad Pitt in more ways than one.

Answer: Who knows? It seems so, but it’s been a bumpy road to get there. 

Have we had too many movies (recently) about space?

People seem to be discussing this with some serious contention. There’s no need to compare Interstellar, GravityThe Martian, and Ad Astra. Let them be stand alone projects made by important directors highlighting fantastic actors.

Answer: No, space movies are great, but we might need to find some new stories, new angles to explore. Make a space movie with Adam Sandler and I’ll be in the theater before you can say “sandman”. 

What happens when a film tries to answer too many questions at once?

I’ve seen several reviews describing Ad Astra as a “slow burn” of a film. Usually, the result of a slow burn is the bubbling up of anger, frustration, or conflict. Gray’s film ended with a fizzle, not a bang. He’s tackling a monster amount of topics in a two-hour window. These questions are raised throughout the film, but there’s not nearly enough time to figure out the thought-provoking mess of his own creation.

The universe Gray crafted is commendable yet it’s surprising a film like this, a solemn character study with an $80 million budget, can still get made in today’s shifting industry. It’s a big, beautiful, bonkers film.

As Norman Vincent Peale, a famously positive man, once said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” And Grey certainly is somewhere, even if he’s a bit lost, deep in the galaxy of stars.

★★★