Something about space makes it so cinematically potent. The emptiness, the thrill of danger, the quiet beauty. We keep coming back to it. It’s space. It’s right there. How could we not be obsessed with it?
Ad Astra takes place in space. But it’s not about space. It’s about fatherhood, ambition, loneliness. It’s about a great deal of things, none of which are exclusive to space.
H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones, was considered to be the world’s best astronaut. He disappeared on his final, daring mission, along with his crew. But now, there’s reason to believe that he survived. His son, Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt, has been tasked with reaching his father, in order to save all of humanity.
The part about humanity isn’t all that important. More important is Roy chasing his father’s legacy, trying to understand the man who made him, the man who never saw what his creation became. That odyssey takes Roy across the galaxy, meeting the occasional fellow space-traveller along the way.
Most of this movie is Roy. Either Roy looking out into space, Roy in space, Roy’s voice, Roy’s memories. Brad Pitt puts in an incredible performance, carrying stoicism without ever seeming robotic. There is a deep well of emotion beneath Roy’s calm surface, always present despite his best efforts. Some of Pitt’s finest acting comes during Roy’s psychiatric evaluations where Roy is questioned by a robotic voice on his current state-of-mind. With each evaluation, Pitt reveals Roy’s cracks a little more, showing the years of baggage Roy carries both as an astronaut and as a son. And still, Roy cannot even begin to unpack the trauma he carries because the system needs him to keep it contained, to keep him mission focused.
Roy is accompanied by other astronauts, scientists, and military men throughout his journey. Each performance adds a texture to the movie, altering its trajectory as we move along. It’s not about what they’re doing or what information they’re passing to Roy as he hurls across space. It’s about the way they greet him, the way they share their life with him. Donald Sutherland’s charm as a retired astronaut shows how emotionally stunted Roy is; Donnie Keshawarz as a fellow astronaut gives a taste of Clifford’s legacy and the shadow Roy has been living under his whole life; Sean Blakemore, a soldier on the moon, gives a snippet of the life Roy wish he could live; Ruth Negga, as the head of a camp on Mars, injects a dose of cynicism on the commercialized red planet. Each performance brings a new layer to the film, surrounding Roy with constant reminders of his own failures and insecurities. Though they are each likable and human in their own ways, by the end of the film, they become almost extensions of Roy’s psyche, manifestations of the lives he did not live.
James Gray, the director and co-writer, takes the science in science-fiction lightly. He is not interested in explaining the ways science progressed in the future, like how space travel evolved to allow easy transit to the moon, Mars, or further. It’s clearly a deliberate choice, considering the most similar movies in recent memory are Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, two films very concerned with being scientifically accurate, and letting us know that they are scientifically accurate. Most fans of science fiction know which storytelling style they prefer: complex, dense world-building, or broad strokes in the background. Between those two, Ad Astra firmly joins 2001: A Space Odyssey in the latter camp. Roy, not space, is the focus of this movie, a choice that may not please those expecting a smooth or easy ride.
Another divisive element of Ad Astra are its voice-overs. Roy’s internal monologue runs throughout the film and works early on when they’re poetic reflections on his life and the man he has become. But as time goes on, they become more direct, occasionally completely unpacking the subtext of a line of dialogue from another character. For a movie that is about constraint and repression, it could have been more comfortable with silence. And the silence in this movie is beautiful, like when Roy walks in neon-lit Martian corridors, gazes from a moon rover at the blue marble floating ahead, or drifts through the void that separates him from his father.
Ad Astra sucks you into its orbit as it moves along, as Roy travels further and further across the stars. But that’s Gray’s trick. The further Roy gets from earth, the more we are pulled into his mind. We do not move outward with Roy, we move inward into the heart of a man who cannot allow his heart rate to go above 80 BPM. We become trapped in his quest, in his mind, as he reaches further to find the answers he does not want but needs. We fall, or rise, with Roy as his father grows nearer and nearer. And as the gap between them shrinks, the harder it is for Roy to hide from the truth.
Ad Astra is bold, visionary, and borders on mythic. It is symbolic and lyrical. It is thrilling and frightening. It is a challenging film, but it never feels like it’s smarter than you. And unlike most movies about space, it does not ask what life lies out there, beyond the stars. It asks about what lies in our hearts, and the lies we tell ourselves to keep on living.