Ever since I was a child, Science Fiction has always resonated with me on a more personal level than most, if any other, genre of storytelling. Aside from the expansive worldbuilding and plethora of routes to explore ones own imagination, Sci-Fi has seemingly always created deeply personal narritives that have made connections with me. It is fair to say that this genre has helped shape my maturity throughout my adolescence and the person I have grown into being. When the trailers for James Gray’s “Ad Astra” first dropped in early 2019, I immediately felt the rush of excitement and anticipation of witnessing a new epic in the genre that I so deeply love.
Whether we realize it or not, we find ourselves in an era that is a sort of Sci-Fi Renaissance. The likes of “The Martian”, “Interstellar”, and “Gravity” have given us a (pardon the pun) stellar collection of recent films in the genre that take the rules of our reality and seek to make compelling stories within the realm of possibilities while still looking forward to create a future that is beyond our current capabilities. It is the ability to understand our current limitations aren’t a static obstacle and someday we will be able to take the next step in the exploration of our universe that has given this genre the endurance to survive for as long as it has. We, as human beings, always have a curiosity as to what the future for us holds for us, and “Ad Astra” continues this phenomenal trend of accurately depicting “the near future” as it desribes.
This deeply intimate story of a desolate journey into the farthest corner of our Solar System was not the movie I expected to see, but it was uniquely beautiful in its own way. The biggest sin that this movie commits is that it is poorly advertised by the film’s marketing department. We are promised an epic exploring the grandiose nature of space and the cosmic forces that surround us, but that is but a footnote in the ledger of what this film really is. The focus of this film is squarely on the relationship of Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride with his estranged father, Tommy Lee Jones’s Colonel Clifford McBride, who just happens to be the most decorated astronaut in human history, but at the expense of the relationships with his family.
Roy is tasked with traveling to Mars on a series of confidential missions in order to send a transmission to his long-lost father who is believed to be somewhere orbiting Neptune and responsible for a series of anti-matter bursts that are threatening all life in the Solar System. Col. McBride was originally thought to have died roughly 19 years prior when his mission’s communications seized, leaving a young Roy and his mother to cope with the loss and abandonment of Clifford with no closure whatsoever. The abandonment Roy experiences has made it near impossible for him to effectively connect with any other human being, a quality that actually makes him the ideal astronaut, as he always remains focused on the mission at hand, his pulse rate never rises above 87, and he always passes his frequent psychological evaluations. This comes at the expense of his marriage to Liv Tyler’s Eve, who is honestly nothing more than a prop for the film to use to express Roy’s distance from humanity. However, thanks to a healthy dose of voiceovers, Roy’s inner monologues express a great deal of conflict he has with processing his isolation and abandonment. The farther Roy travels into space, the more he actually connects to his own humanity.
Undoubtedly, the film’s greatest strength is that it is consistent with its message from the beginning to the end of the movie. The idea of looking out to the stars in the search for extraterrestrial life while simultaneously ignoring the degrading nature of humanity back home is perfectly mirrored in Clifford’s abandonment of Roy. Clifford chose to leave behind all of his connections to Earth and take some dubious actions in pursuit of his mission, and Roy seems destined to continue of his father’s trajectory. As Roy journey’s to the Moon and then to Mars, we see how the astronauts are encouraged to feel less and less, with the mandatory psychological evaluations administered by robots and dosages of mood stabilizers that they must take in order to make their travels. This point is only exacerbated that seemingly everyone who accompanies Roy on his voyage ends up dead before the credits role. The irony that we will be desperately searching for life while ignoring everything that makes life worth living is the thesis of the film and it offers us all an introspective moment to decide what the most important things in our life are and what gives life meaning.
The visual effects of this film are praiseworthy. Sci-Fi is typically a genre that blazes the trail with special effects, often because it necessitates the realistic rendering of many things that are physically too large to capture on camera or technology that does not yet exist. Yet, it is with this element of filmmaking that the story more subtly depicts the future and the world we are headed for. As a science nerd, I appreciate how the rockets are designed. They use solar sails and microwave emitters for thrust, two technologies that many scientists believe to be the future of space travel. The fact that it is just a visual and not a fact uttered in dialogue makes this a great treat for those of us who enjoy seeing a reasonable probability for scientific advancements. The way they render the Moon and the active commercial society that inhabits the lunar colony is a real joy, showing the spread of western consumerism with the additions of a Subway and a Dunkin Donuts in the background. This is further hinted at in Roy’s commercial flight to the Moon where the future Virgin Atlantic charges $150 for pillows and blankets. I guess capitalism is really excited for human advancement as well.
There have been a few comparisons made to the Vietnam War drama “Apocalypse Now” and I find some of them are warranted but maybe not all of them. There is no question that there are similar themes, tones, and storytelling mechanisms between the two. Both heavily explore the ideas of losing yourself in the mission, becoming isolated, and use voiceovers to give us insight into character growth, so it is definitely fair to say that there is noticible influence from Francis Ford Coppolla’s classic epic. While it tries to stand on the shoulders of the giants that precede it, I do not think it is fair to put this into that same tier just yet. “Apocalypse Now” is 40 years old and still beloved to this day, and there is still no guarantee that “Ad Astra” will be remembered in a few months. Legacy is earned, and even if the content is comparable, you aren’t born a legend. Let’s see if this film stands the test of time.
I have seen that the response to this film is divided and I feel the need to address that. Some who have viewed the film have claimed it fails to deliver enough excitement to warrant the visuals, cast, and marketing it received. There is no doubt that this film is somber and if you go in looking forward to an exciting space adventure, you may leave the theater disappointed. Even I could not escape an ever-present sadness when I left the theater, and I enjoyed the movie. I saw the film with two close friends and I could very much see that we all seemed to absorb the feeling of isolation that Roy endures throughout the film, a sort of loneliness in polite company. And that is just it: the film is not an easy watch. Similar to recent films like “The Revenant” and “Dunkirk”, “Ad Astra” will not make you leave the theater feeling lifted-up and likewise the film probably does not offer much re-watchability. But I stand by the fact that this film is beautiful and a viewing should be highly encouraged to everyone. I implore people to give the film a chance and treat it as a thought experiment for the future of humanity. No, there is not a ton of action scenes but the visuals are stunning and the philosophy is palpable to us all.
“Ad Astra” is a wonderful movie that is tightly focused amongst a genre that is typically more grand in its execution. It is wonderfully acted by an understated Brad Pitt, who is burdened with virtually the entire film resting on his shoulders. Most supporting characters are negligible, and that is a shame considering the talent that those minor players possess, however that should not detract from the film. It never attempts to make the film about anybody other than Roy and Clifford, and to its credit, it stays true to its own vision. As far as pure Science-Fiction (Which means I am excluding comic book films) films go, “Ad Astra” has continued this revival of intimate realism that the genre has been trending towards in the past decade or so.
I would give “Ad Astra” an intimate 8.8 out of 10
Directed by: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler
Runtime: 2 Hours and 13 Minutes