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When we think of space-set sci-fi, images of the chestburster from Alien, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Sandra Bullock hurdling through the great abyss in Gravity spring to mind. Yet, certain space movies forgo such spectacle. They use the overwhelming setting and the isolation it brings to probe deeper human quandaries. Films like High Life, Solaris and even Blade Runner 2049 see their characters travelling to new worlds or the deepest corners of the universe only to gaze inward at their own issues.
James Gray’s latest Ad Astra fits into this latter category, thanks to its sombre tone and emphasis on the emotional state of its protagonist. An impressively stoic Brad Pitt (who produced Gray’s last feature The Lost City of Z) stars as astronaut Roy McBride, living in a near future Earth. Humanity has plundered most of its natural resources, making space exploration its greatest hope of survival (the phrase ‘ad astra’ is Latin for ‘to the stars’).
Roy was left an orphan. His father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), abandoned him to be one of the first pioneers to venture into the outer edges of the solar system. This is before he and his crew disappeared mysteriously around Neptune. Despite not really knowing Clifford, Roy has followed in his footsteps – putting work over his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), and unhealthily bottling his feelings until they boil over into anger. However, when Earth is struck by catastrophic power surges originating from Neptune, all signs point to Clifford still being alive. It’s up to Roy to track down his father.
Ad Astra is essentially Apocalypse Now in space. Roy is the conflicted Captain Willard, narrating his odyssey to visit his own personal Colonel Kurtz. Yes, there are moments of dizzying spectacle – Pitt’s character spiralling to Earth in a damaged parachute in the opening, a Mad Max: Fury Road-esque car chase on the moon, a handful of taut action sequences involving air locks. However, these are only on the fringes of the story, just brief bombastic blockbuster beats in what’s really a gorgeously crafted (Max Richter’s score and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography deserve much of the film’s praise) €80 million budget art-house movie.
Ad Astra is about a man struggling to live in the shadow of his father – a man hailed as a visionary yet emotionally distant to those he was related. It asks: what impact does it have when the person you love the most and want to live up to is also someone you resent? How does that warp your sense of self and identity?
Perhaps there’s an underlying commentary in Ad Astra on how the artistic drive to create is often quenched at the expense of those closest to filmmakers. City of Z’s tale of an early 20th century explorer who left his wife in Britain to search for the titular Amazonian location covered this idea in a more hopeful way, positioning the voyager as it’s hero. In Ad Astra, however, the explorer is the villain. The hero is his spawn, damaged by his actions. Roy trains his blood pressure never to go over 80 bpm because he’s so scared of being vulnerable. In fact, he won’t even call his wife as he is terrified of opening his heart fully to another person.
Ad Astra is not perfect. Roy’s narration aims for Terrence Malick vibes but just feels bland. Tyler’s lack of screen time detracts from the story’s emotional core. Plus, it’s impossible to write about Ad Astra without discussing the multiple films it cribs from. All that said, it does build to a chamber piece finale – thrillingly subverting expectations of an action-packed finale – of which the climax is truly emotionally affecting.
Battling moon pirates and genetic experiments gone wrong is hard. Perhaps, more difficult though is facing your flaws head-on and working to be better. Ad Astra understands this.