Ad Astra = To the Stars. A fitting name for this adventurous yet introspective science fiction film starring one of the biggest stars of them all, Brad Pitt.
As much as science fiction is often about exploring the vast universe we inhabit, it can just as easily be utilized to reflect inward. Ad Astra is a film that does a little bit of both. It is a journey into deep space across the solar system, but not to investigate the unknown. Ad Astra’s purpose is to investigate something much more familiar - ourselves.
Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is a decorated astronaut who lives in the shadow (and constant reminder) of his famous dad. McBride’s father went missing years ago on a scientific mission called the Lima Project which travelled into deep space with the goal of utilizing new technology in the search for intelligent life. When a series of mysterious shock waves cause death and destruction on Earth, US Space Command (SpaceCom) calls on McBride. The source of the disaster is in the vicinity of the last known location of his father. SpaceCom believes the elder McBride is not only still alive, but has gone rogue. They believe McBride is the only person who will be able to help them find the truth, and put an end to the destruction.
The film launches off on a grand adventure. McBride travels to the moon and Mars. We get to see a near-future of commercial space flight, expansive moon bases, and underground bunkers on Mars. Through it all, humanity seems obsessed by one thing; finding out our place in the universe. The film takes time to show us a giant antenna array, moon-based telescopes, and deep space research stations. The Lima Project is just the latest, most progressive, and perhaps precarious part of the same effort. Mankind is searching for the secrets of the universe, some magic key to ease our concerns about our chaotic existence.
And yet, the film is not promoting all of this effort. In fact, it is against it. At every turn, we see struggle, pain, and desperation. Humanity is so blinded by the hope of what is waiting for us out there, we seem to have forgotten what is really most important. Roy is a great representation of this theme. He is estranged from his wife, and casually at one point just seems to right it off as a casualty of his profession. Similarly, everyone sees his father as a great hero. Someone who sacrificed everything for his work. He is the model everyone else is trying to live up to. But there’s another side to this coin. The elder McBride gave up his family. Roy didn’t have a father figure to grow up with, just the constant comparison to his father’s peachy public persona.
Roy’s mission is top secret. The government takes part in a massive cover-up to hide the truth about the elder McBride. They could never admit their own involvement in what is causing widespread death and destruction. And after they get what they need out of Roy, they cast him aside. The film doesn’t really have anything to do with politics, but that doesn’t keep it from feeling like a mid-70’s political thriller awash in government conspiracy and deadly realizations. It may not have heady twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat, but there is more to consider than what meets the eye.
The film’s inward reflection is best demonstrated by the direction, which is firmly focused on Roy for the entire run time. Other characters come and go. Some help him, some try to hurt him. But they never linger more than a scene or two. Director James Grey elects to give us an almost first-person perspective. Repeated psychological evaluations required by SpaceCom at various points in his journey offer a clue of what is going on inside Roy’s head. These moments allow us to become familiar with Roy, but also understand the impact of his difficult mission while in route. Grey also elects to use first person monologues overlaying the film’s mesmerizing visuals. While they do feel a bit old-fashioned, they give the audience the opportunity to visit Roy’s past while allowing the film to continue to move forward.
With so much focus on the main character, the entire film essentially hinges on Brad Pitt’s performance. Luckily, he does not disappoint. Pitt is always personable on screen, and this charisma is what lures the audience into Roy’s plight. Roy McBride is as steady and disciplined as they come, but Pitt’s performance shows us fear and sadness around the edges. As the journey progresses, the film picks at those flakes of dried paint, eventually revealing a different portrait underneath. During the psychological evaluations, for example, the nuances of Pitt’s performance demonstrate uncertainty despite words explaining otherwise.
Just as important to how Ad Astra feels is how it looks and sounds. Visually, the film is colorful, expansive, and hypnotic. In the first scene, Roy steps out of an airlock and the camera tumbles forward off of a platform to reveal an awe-inspiring glimpse of Earth far below. It is just the first of many interesting visual moments used to contrast the film’s more claustrophobic script. The soundtrack makes a similarly favorable impression. Soft strings alternate with rhythmic synths to give us something familiar and natural, but also concerning and new. In fact, the whole film has this wonderful 70’s lo-fi science fiction vibe, but enhanced with realistic modern-day special effects. The director orchestrates a sublime balance between looking out and looking in. He never lets the audience get too caught up in the grandness of space to forget about what really matters.
And so it may seem like the effort of travelling all the way out to Neptune is an expensive method of psychoanalysis, but Ad Astra works. Despite the very inward-looking script, the film’s plot is always pushing onward and outward. It moves quickly from one locale to another, gallivanting towards a final realization which brings the films’s seemingly diverging objectives back together again. Maybe the finale is not as shocking or astonishing as we’ve come to expect from science fiction films, but I think that is why it works so well. Science fiction doesn’t always need to make us reconsider our lives with spellbinding hypotheses. Sometimes it just needs to point out the obvious, which has too often been ignored.
What's Bad: Ending may feel a bit disappointing, monologue and ambiance-driven, focused scope of the film can feel constraining at times.