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Is Ad Astra the Most Emo Space Movie Ever Made?

Why are all these men floating in space? That was the question I had (plenty of) time to ask myself during Ad Astra, the gorgeous space-therapy epic starring Brad Pitt, which opens tomorrow. It wasn’t long ago that I was patiently sitting through Ryan Gosling’s space epic, First Man. And not that long ago that I wiled away the better part of three hours in Christopher Nolan’s woo-woo Interstellar, watching Matthew McConaughey discover the meaning of love at the edge of the galaxy.

Ad Astra is better than either of those movies, but it raises similar questions. Chief among them: What miraculous thing are these men expecting to discover way out there beyond the beyond? One answer is intelligent life. But Pitt has a perfectly intelligent life form back at home, i.e., Liv Tyler, in a blink-and-you-miss-it role as his neglected wife. Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, has withheld his feelings. Or betrayed her? It’s not explained, but whatever—astronauts don’t have time for wives! This we learned in First Man, in which Gosling—as Neil Armstrong—met Claire Foy’s pleas to remain on Earth with a stoicism that, I thought, was rather misconstrued as heroism.

Ad Astra Starring Brad Pitt. Courtesy of Century Fox

Pitt in Ad Astra is stoic too. (We learn early on that his pulse never rises above 80 bpm, even during a terrifying free fall in the opening sequence.) But what Ad Astra has, that most space epics do not, is male feeling. Buckets of it. This has to be the most emo space movie ever made. Director James Gray, who co-wrote the script with his friend Ethan Gross, is a classically minded filmmaker whose last movie, 2016’s The Lost City of Z, was also about a man drawn to an unexplored frontier. Here he opts for that most traditional (and tricky) of storytelling devices: a voice-over. Pitt’s—which is pulled from psychological evaluations meant to determine if he is fit for space—is earnest and faintly ridiculous, reminding us over and over that he is a man yearning to experience emotion, but just can’t. I should feel something, he intones early on. But he compartmentalizes. His anger, rage, hurt, and pain are all walled off. Here’s his cri de coeur, uttered mid-film: “I don’t want to be my dad.” I giggled.

Because that is right out of the male midlife-crisis handbook—which, to be fair, Ad Astra feels entirely indebted to. Pitt’s dad is another astronaut, played here by a wild and wooly Tommy Lee Jones, who neglected Pitt’s character as a boy and then disappeared on a space mission of his own somewhere near Neptune. Now, with mysterious and deadly energy surges originating near that distant planet, government officials order Pitt to go find his father and bring him back to the fold. To do this, Pitt must confront his own demons, his inherited repression, his loneliness, his pain, his—as my four-year-old son might say—blah, blah, blah.

Should you see Ad Astra? I loved the look of the film, the shabbily corporatized lunar mega-mall, the claustrophobic Mars outpost, the stunning scale of outer space. There are thrilling set pieces, a moon-buggy chase, and a sequence in an abandoned spaceship in particular, that left me breathless. And Pitt, at 55, is so companionable, so grounded and resolute, that spending two hours with him is like leaning comfortably against a cool slab of granite.

But your mileage may vary. The real question Ad Astra poses is: How much tolerance do you have for a patient and thorough exploration of the psyche of a white American middle-aged male? As one of these guys myself, I was a little mystified by the grandeur on the screen, which seemed ill-suited to its subject. Haven’t we learned that white men’s lives have dominated the world’s attention for a bit too long? Maybe that’s why these guys are floating in space. Because it’s 2019 and no one cares the way they used to. Because in space no one can hear you cry.

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