Where FIRST MAN examined the troubled sort of mindset that might set one up to leaving the planet, AD ASTRA really zeroes in on the specific ideas of duty, legacy, masculinity, self-sufficiency, pioneership and so on, those that form the sort of astronaut identity, those that would see a father leaving his family to go explore space as something noble and just. Brad Pitt and his easy masculinity make the perfect fit for a character interrogating these sorts of assumptions; his looks and manner are instantly believable as that sort of rugged exploratory hero, but there’s an offbeat, performative edge to it, one that often sees the actor better in character roles rather than more straightly-played leads.
The film is drenched in too much voiceover from Pitt’s character, crowding out his subtle, mostly-wordless performance where he communicates with his eyes all that he’s droning on about in voiceover. The many point-of-view shots do a great job as far as immersion anyway. Still, the voiceover does confer a sense of APOCALYPSE NOW, a clear influence, with Pitt’s lead trekking across the Moon and Mars on the way to Neptune, encountering all sorts of madness along the way. A commercialised Moon, an bleak Mars, and unsettling personalities all the way.
The film’s refusal to escalate does it a world of good, as it remains singularly committed to the essential mundanity of the character issues at play – why have I been left alone? Have I made myself even more alone? How do I not do that? There’s a clarity to some of the dialogue that feels perhaps studio-mandated, but the way the film illustrates the essential limpness of abandoning people for some vague sense of duty feels like a natural evolution of the director’s last film, THE LOST CITY OF Z – except framed more on the oft-abandoned son than the exploring father. As an entry into the space genre’s iteration from action shlock into introspective moody character pieces, AD ASTRA stakes an actual claim and questions the merit of all this star trekking when inevitably something is being left behind on the journey. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema may have helmed INTERSTELLAR as well, but his use of negative space here feels more illustrative of that essential emptiness rather than just demonstrations of scale, let alone majesty. Four baboons and a $125 blanket.