Brad Pitt is having quite a year on screen So good, in fact, that he may find himself with a pair of Oscar nominations; for Best Supporting Actor for playing indispensable stuntman Cliff in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” and Best Actor for his portrayal of astronaut Major Roy McBride in James Gray’s “Ad Astra” (20thCentury Fox).
“Ad Astra” is set in the “near future”, during “a time of hope and conflict” when “people look to the stars”. The moon has been more or less colonized, although it’s been overrun by pirates and is like the Wild West. There are also people living in underground cities on Mars.
Calm, steady and focused Roy (Pitt) has stardust in his blood. His father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) is a celebrated hero in the space program. But something is amiss. Absent for much of Roy’s childhood, Clifford went missing when his Lima Project, searching for extra-terrestrial life in the galaxy and stationed near Neptune, simply seemingly disappeared into thin air without explanation.
Via mostly unnecessary narration, Roy tells us that he’s always wanted to be an astronaut “for mankind and all that.” As it turns out, mankind needs him now more than ever. While doing repair work on a massive space antenna, Roy experiences firsthand the power surges emanating from the outer reaches of earth’s solar system, and almost loses his life. He’s lucky, because thousands of other people are dying daily from these electro-magnetic jolts.
A hesitant team-player, Roy is recruited for a mission with Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), a former associate of his father’s. Much to Roy’s surprise, he learns that not only is his father believed to still be alive by the higher-ups, but that he has gone rogue and is in some way involved with the devastation occurring on earth. Roy’s mission, though he doesn't know it, is to lure his father home.
After a series of troublesome events, including a violent confrontation on the moon, a hideous incident involving killer lab animals on a medical space station, and Roy commandeering a Neptune-bound craft, resulting in the deaths of the crew, father and son do come face-to-face. Both men, alone on their respective missions, make the effort to communicate their individual plans. As expected, nothing turns out the way it should.
Pitt gives the most nuanced performance of his career. The grizzled Jones, less so. As for the supporting cast, Ruth Negga, who plays a woman born on Mars whose family was killed by Clifford, is the true standout. Even on a massive IMAX screen Pitt’s timeless beauty remains intact. The lunar landscape and the galaxy also benefit from the size and scope of the screen. However, if you have any issues with heights and queasiness, you might want to avoid the IMAX experience altogether, and go for 2D.