This article contains minor spoilers.
What a year for Brad Pitt.
After having his own “Hot Boy Summer” in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Pitt is once again starring in a masterclass of American cinema — this time exchanging the stars of Hollywood for the stars of space in James Gray’s “Ad Astra.”
The film follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut tasked with tracking down his long lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), who is thought to be threatening the galaxy from a long-forgotten mission on Neptune.
While the core of the film’s plot has extremely high stakes — the fate of all life in the galaxy — the true heart of the film is much simpler. It examines the relationship between father and son, and also masterfully deconstructs men’s inability to express emotions.
The tale of a son searching for his absent father is certainly not unrepresented in film, but the subtlety of emotions displayed in “Ad Astra” gives the trope something new and worthwhile. This subtlety is consistently depicted in the closeups of Pitt’s face as he gives the audience small, yet guarded insights into his character’s mind.
Normally, narration in film is used as a device to let the audience know exactly how or what a character is thinking. But in “Ad Astra,” Gray uses narration to portray what his lead is holding back, inciting both suspense and curiosity.
Moments of intimacy between Pitt and the audience reflect how McBride’s relationship with his father has affected his ability to make emotional connections with loved ones. McBride is so void of emotional expression that when he finally breaks down, we truly feel the emotional burden he carries.
Despite its tone of melancholy and longing, “Ad Astra” is nowhere near boring. Instead, it’s deliberate and methodical with its shot choices and pacing. The film features long atmospheric shots of McBride alone, in the vast and empty void of space, representing his eternal sense of loneliness.
The character’s physical isolation and inability to make contact with anyone mirrors McBride’s emotional inability to reach out to the people in his life.
From a purely aesthetic view, the most notable section of the film is the 20-minute stop on Mars. The film takes on a dusty and orange color palette, emphasizing how Mars is alien to McBride.
Mars’ foreign terrain represents new territory in both McBride’s mission and personal development — after landing on Mars and being forced to recuperate there, McBride makes an impassioned plea to his father.
In regards to visuals, the film also has some truly breathtaking action scenes — the most notable being a moon chase with space pirates (Yes, fucking space pirates.) As ludicrous as a space pirate chase sounds, the scene feels incredibly grounded, and acts as a somewhat believable extension of current American conflicts over resources.
This realistic portrayal of capitalism and resource scarcity looms over the entirety of the film and provides a layer of depth to an otherwise otherworldly tale.
As stunning as the visuals of “Ad Astra” are, the film only works as well as it does for two reasons: its emotional core and Pitt’s spectacular ability to harness this emotional core with only his face.
Pitt’s face has been a staple in American households for almost 30 years, but I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching it.
Luckily for the audience, Pitt’s face is featured prominently throughout as his facial expressions dance between representing a reserved military man and the lonely boy who lies underneath. When McBride finally sheds his “tough guy” persona, it’s beautiful and heart-wrenching in a way that feels incredibly real.
“Ad Astra” is a film I can’t stop thinking about, in the best way possible. It’s one of the rare films that has moved me without feeling manipulative. I can’t wait to experience this film again.
“Ad Astra” 4.5/5 Stars
Ben Hafetz PZ ’20 is TSL’s film columnist. He’s a media studies and politics double major who likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.