Eight years ago, long before his dazzling and surely Oscar-winning turn this summer in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Brad Pitt gave a magnificent performance in The Tree of Life as a loving martinet father in 1950s Texas with Sean Penn as his pensive son, ruminating in endless voice-overs about his pains and sorrows and the origins of the universe. This weekend, you can see Pitt in a virtual remake of The Tree of Life, in which he plays the son, not the father. It's called Ad Astra, and like The Tree of Life, it's both good and awful.
In The Tree of Life, the son effectively journeys back to the origins of the universe and watches God's creation unfold. In Ad Astra, the son is an astronaut who journeys to the far reaches of Neptune to deal with his fellow astronaut father Tommy Lee Jones. Long thought dead, Dad seems not only to be alive but may be on the verge of destroying the solar system. Like The Tree of Life, much of the story in Ad Astra unfolds through whispery narration intended to convey the innermost thoughts of the son. And like The Tree of Life, the narration is often pretentious to the point of inadvertent hilarity.
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So that's the bad part, and it's pretty bad. Ad Astra is one of the most sheerly humorless movies in recent memory. In all of its two hours, there's only one good joke. As Pitt arrives on the moon on the first leg of his journey, there's an Applebee's sign glowing outside the lunar airport. Director/cowriter James Gray's sole moment of levity is then undercut by a finger-wagging bit of narration about the commercialization of space or something.
Just as The Tree of Life is best when it focuses on its writer-director Terrence Malick's specific recollections of his Texas childhood, Ad Astra is best when it focuses on the actual adventures Brad Pitt's character goes on. From an opening sequence on a high-atmosphere antenna that starts to blow up to a chase on the lunar surface to a climactic Oedipal showdown, everything that involves action in Ad Astra is just thrilling and beautiful. And if the movie does well, it will be because people really enjoy that stuff.
It won't be because Brad Pitt's character undergoes a transformation from being walled off to understanding he needs to allow himself to feel. Who the hell cares if Astronaut McBride feels or doesn't feel? There's a weird determination among directors of movies about astronauts to turn them into morose people who are going on an inner journey to cope with a personal tragedy that has left them hollow. Sandra Bullock in Gravity? On an inner journey to deal with the death of her daughter. Ryan Gosling in First Man? On an inner journey to deal with the death of his daughter. Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey? On an inner journey to turn into a giant baby.
What is with this, anyway? They're not on an inner journey. You can take an inner journey taking a walk on a cul-de-sac, or on a crowded subway car, or a hayride through a pumpkin patch. Astronauts go on actual journeys to places no one has ever been before. Why can't they be having the greatest time?
Pitt is really a wonderful presence, and he fills the screen no matter what he does. But even though I enjoyed Ad Astra, I kept wondering throughout what it might be like if the character he played were Cliff Booth, the guy from Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, rather than Roy McBride. The two have much in common, including very low resting heart rates and a painful past. The real difference is that Cliff seems to be able to have a ball even when he's making himself mac-and-cheese in a gross little trailer outside a drive-in, while Roy McBride can't even enjoy himself when his gorgeous wife Liv Tyler is lying next to him in bed.
Can't we have one movie in which an astronaut, you know, likes being an astronaut? Just one? It is a mystery. Perhaps Terrence Malick and James Gray can explore said mystery in a joint cinematic project entitled Gaze into My Navel.