Handsome actors do well in space films. Look at Matt Damon in “The Martian,” George Clooney in “Gravity” and, now, Brad Pitt in “Ad Astra.”
They thrive because audiences don’t mind staring at them while they’re saying nothing. Much is played on their faces; plenty goes down without much sound.
In “Ad Astra,” Pitt is the son of a legendary astronaut who’s plucked to go on a very special mission – one that’s so secretive even high-level authorities don’t know what it is. Somewhere beyond Mars, he’s expected to bring back information that could lead back to research his dad (Tommy Lee Jones) did.
Director James Gray gets the usual shots of the big blue marble, suggests what Mars looks like and shows how the moon can be colonized to good effect. There’s even a Subway up there, places for all those commercial flights, and a flurry of activity to let audiences ponder “what if?”
The real fun happens, though, when Pitt is thrust into uncharted territory – a “Mad Max”-like world where pirates are trying to keep “official” explorers from encroaching on their ground.
Donald Sutherland checks in as an authority figure – someone charged with getting the young astronaut to his destination -- and Ruth Negga is a Mars official who has some kind of connection to the mysterious Lima Project.
Because he has no ties (his significant other left him; his parents are presumed dead), Pitt’s Roy McBride is an ideal choice to investigate.
That complicated relationship with dad, however, overwhelms everything. While in space, Roy retraces conversations, remembers situations and wonders if, maybe, he could have taken a different approach to their family moments.
Dad was the most highly decorated astronaut in the space program. He’s hailed as a true American hero and held as an example for Roy and others. Officials, however, point out aspects of his career that could affect the reputation. Roy’s given information few are privy to and expected to take risks most wouldn’t.
Gray eventually tells all, but it’s fun to guess what’s afoot until Roy has his own close encounter.
While most of the supporting actors aren’t around long enough to matter (Natasha Lyonne turns up as a bored worker), it’s the one-two punch of Pitt and Jones that gives “Ad Astra” its boost.
As in most films, Pitt barely talks, Jones delivers monologues in scratchy videos. Both approaches work.
“Ad Astra” isn’t the space film to end all space films, but it is a good way to show that Pitt is much more than the sum of his parts.
He makes the most of a single teardrop. He handles action sequences with the swagger of a veteran. And he channels the vulnerability of a child.
That’s more than enough to make this a trip worth taking. He doesn’t lead a solitary life like “The Martian,” but he does make the most of every minute of silence.