'Ad Astra' Review: A Science Fiction Masterpiece Anchored By Brad Pitt's Best Performance In Years

Two years ago, writer-director James Gray took the epic, true-life adventure story The Lost City of Z and turned it into a dark treatise of obsession and its engulfing dangers. His latest film, the big-budget science-fiction story Ad Astra, is as massive a canvas as he's had to work on so far, with one of the biggest movie stars in the world as his lead. Yet Ad Astra is just as haunting, unexpectedly emotional, and perceptive as Lost City was, making for a remarkable companion piece and one of the most thoughtful and riveting genre films in years.Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, a leading astronaut in the U.S. Space Command program in "the near future". McBride's reputation precedes him for two reasons: he's known for his extreme calm even in dangerous situations, and he's the son of an iconic astronaut (Tommy Lee Jones) whose work inspired countless others to explore space. But after a powerful electrical surge soars past Earth's atmosphere, Roy learns that his thought-to-be-dead father may be alive and behind the surge, which could cause humanity to vanish in an instant. Roy's task is to reach out to his father, stationed on Neptune.There's more than a little of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Coppola's Apocalypse Now in Roy's journey into darkness in Ad Astra, amplified thanks to Pitt's somber voiceover narration. (Others may make the connection to the work of Terrence Malick because of this narration, but the Coppola comparison holds up much more strongly.) While Roy is preternaturally low-key on the surface, the narration emphasizes his disaffected, alienated nature. Through jagged bits of flashbacks, we see that Roy pushed away his wife (Liv Tyler, in a brief role) and is terrified of one of the most common fears a man can have: becoming his father. Pitt's work here is challenging — though Roy's strong-but-silent exterior is pushed to the brink throughout, he's not as expressive as others are. Pitt, though, is more than up to the task, delivering a performance of unexpected depth and grace. People have rightly championed his work in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but Brad Pitt's best performance of 2019 is in Ad Astra.It's a good thing, too, because Ad Astra is mostly a one-man show — there's a number of other actors, including Jones, Tyler, Donald Sutherland (as an old friend of Roy's dad), and Ruth Negga, but Pitt's onscreen for almost the entirety of the film. Even as he continues to cut an extremely handsome figure, Pitt's work here suggests that he hasn't lost his ability to be one of the most exciting, daring actors of the last 40 years. His laconic work in OUATIH was extremely enjoyable, but with Ad Astra, he's pushing himself emotionally in ways that he hasn't tried in a very long time. For as often as Roy is alone, the more time we spend with him, the more he becomes emotionally, viscerally frayed. This film doesn't just represent Pitt's best work of 2019, but arguably his best performance in decades.And he's matched by Gray (who co-wrote the film with Ethan Gross). Just as The Lost City of Z proved that he could blend emotional interiority with expansive, epic-style filmmaking, Ad Astra cements his capabilities of working within a genre style with remarkable ease. Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who collaborated with Christopher Nolan on Dunkirk and Interstellar), Gray is able to both acknowledge the best examples of the genre while creating jaw-droppingly beautiful new images. Sometimes, as we see characters floating through the deepest reaches of outer space, there's a striking blend of what Gray's quoting (such as 2001: A Space Odyssey) and what he's creating. Credit is also due to Kevin Thompson, the film's production designer, for seeding in mild hints of what the near future could hold — such as paying for items with a prick of the fingertip — without making the film a comical presentation of futuristic costumes and technology.Ad Astra is also the kind of anomaly in 2019 cinema that people keep asking for: it's a film for adults. Yes, the science-fiction genre allows for Gray to work in some action sequences that run counter to Roy's brooding, moody interior. (There's no detail you need aside from knowing that Roy has to, at various points in the film, face off against Moon pirates and bloodthirsty monkeys, and it all somehow makes perfect sense.) But Ad Astra is the kind of mid-budget (it apparently only cost in the neighborhood of $80 million, which is incredible to consider with the effects and practical work being so believable) film that audiences want in between whatever gargantuan blockbusters clutter the multiplexes. That it's being released by Disney — through 20th Century Fox, which greenlit the film before they were bought up — is almost as shocking as the film itself is.Ad Astra pays off on the expansive promise of James Gray's The Lost City of Z. It's an intelligent, thrilling epic of the soul that offers one of the great lead performances of the year, from an actor who's managed to be underrated even as he's never lost his star power. From its tense, dizzying opening sequence to its profound and emotionally taxing finale, Ad Astra is an absorbing character study masquerading as a sci-fi adventure. It's one of the best films of 2019./Film Rating: 9 out of 10