It’s the Brad Pitt show in Ad Astra; the superstar actor taking audiences along on an introspective journey into deep space to find his estranged father.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut that’s been called on to travel to the far edges of the galaxy to find his father, astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who had been presumed lost after a decades-long mission in outer space on the search for extra-terrestrial life. It’s only when the Earth starts being hit with mysterious power surges coming from deep space that US Space Command begins to suspect Clifford is still out there and may be the source of the potentially life-obliterating surges. Roy embarks on the mission and is met with several setbacks, while having to deal with his own abandonment and mental health issues, all related to his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father.
The film’s story focuses heavily on Roy’s abandonment issues, as he ponders via narration on the state of his feelings towards his father, while also having to verbally submit a mental health test quite regularly throughout the film, where he once again must convey his emotions to a faceless assessor, and us, the audience. Add to that the character’s sombre demeanour and we can see, early on that Roy McBride is a deeply emotional person putting his best mask on to get the job done. Brad Pitt portrays this character with great solemnity, really allowing the audience to get emotionally invested and suffer his plight beside him – a testament to Pitt and the talents he’s worked so hard to craft over the course of his storied career.
The father-son angle of the story is just one of many running themes in the film (though it’s the most unsubtle), as we’re made to consider thoughts on mortality, mental health awareness, the effects of loneliness and the repercussions that come with self-preservation. Ad Astra is set in a near-future where man has the capacity to set up shop on the Moon and on Mars, to the point where common-folk can fly commercially to our neighbouring grey marble and be treated to the same consumer experience they’re used to back home. It suggests that there’s no limit to the reach of man’s corruption and commercialisation of nature, hence why the search for extra-terrestrial life may be so important for the civilisation depicted in this film. Maybe there’s a more advanced, less corruptible form of life out there that can show us the way, or maybe we’re all that’s out there and we’ll just have to deal with our own limitations as a species. There are some profound themes in this film, though they’re not quite at the level of a classic like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The choice of space as the setting for a film with themes like these makes perfect sense considering its vast emptiness, a place where loneliness and madness co-exist. Director James Gray and his design team have captured the beauty and horror of space impeccably, featuring some gorgeous visuals and genuinely thrilling sequences. There are some gut-churning moments in this film that really put us out there amongst the stars with the film’s characters, for better or worse. Ad Astra is a sight to behold as a cinematic spectacle film, its visuals making up for some of its flaws.
There were some elements that just didn’t work, calling in to question director James Gray’s creative decisions on them. For instance, there’s a subplot that involves Moon Pirates, which leads to a brief action sequence involving a Moon-buggy chase and a shootout. It was a cool scene, but one that didn’t serve the plot in any way other than just being there for the sake of having some action. Furthermore, Pitt’s character has a love interest back home on Earth (played by Liv Tyler) whom he has neglected due to the pressures and commitment of his work. We see her only in brief flashbacks as a way to give us some further insight into the man at the centre of the film, though it misses the mark. There’s not enough in it to get invested in that aspect of his life and it’s more a distraction than anything. These two creative choices add some unnecessary narrative to a relatively tight plot that would have worked just as well, if not better, without them.
Ad Astra likely won’t go down in the sci-fi movie hall-of-fame, but it is an excellent addition to the genre nonetheless, and one that highlights Brad Pitt’s ever-evolving talent. It’s a film that subverts expectations which could work to its favour for some audiences, while others may struggle to get through it.
The title means “to the stars” in Latin. It is often used as a shorthand for “Per Aspera Ad Astra” (Through the hardships to the Stars).