For a long time, the idea of humans living in space remained in the realm of fantasy. But as we tiptoe towards environmental collapse, a future of mankind in space seems more and more inevitable.
This might explain why there has been an uptick in films that grapple with humanity in space and mankind’s quest to find a place in the cosmos. Some quintessential 21st-century “space movies” that come to mind are Wall-E (2009), Interstellar (2014), and The Martian (2015).
And Ad Astra is another (lengthy) addition to this “space movie genre,” but instead of widening the scope to include all of humanity, it focuses on one individual.
Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, a cool, capable, yet emotionally repressed astronaut who narrates this story through an internal monologue. He is the son of a famed astronaut who disappeared during a mission that attempted to find intelligent life beyond Jupiter. Roy is tasked by SpaceComm to deal with “Surges,” violent earthquake-like events that cut off electronic power on Earth and other human-colonized planets. Roy’s employer believes that Roy’s father is still out in space causing these surges, and cautiously sends Roy on a classified mission to Jupiter in order to stop his father and bring him home. This journey forces Roy has to confront his complex, tumultuous relationship with his father, confront the personal rifts he has caused in his relationships, all the while dealing with the life-threatening ordeal of space travel.
Visuals-wise, Ad Astra and it’s cinematographer (Hoyte van Hoytema, also DP of Interstellar) succeed in creating a distinctive look for the cosmos. Some of the most memorable visuals include those of Pitt saturated in oppressive reds and sea glass greens, along with the heart-racing opening sequence and the high-contrast space-pirate chase on the Moon.
However, the writing is more of a mixed bag.
The premise is interesting enough– but what bogs down the entire movie is the internal monologue and cliche dialogue. Brad Pitt’s internal monologue is hit or miss. At its best, it hits you with a painstaking clarity, such as when McBride describes his complicated relationship with his father. But at its worst, the writing can feel redundant and even condescending towards the audience, as emotional nuance is sacrificed for direct, straightforward monologues that weakly echo the well-acted shots of Brad Pitt experiencing that said emotion. Brad Pitt does what he can with the script however, and at moments you can forgive the redundancy.
Pitt shines in Ad Astra as he recounts the multifaceted nature of his relationship with his father. Within two hours, we have moments of longing and the simple need for mutual understanding, begrudging respect and emulation, scorn and frustration, and a heartbreaking acceptance and letting go, with varying levels of fitting detachment from Brad Pitt. When the film touches on fatherhood and trauma, everything fits together with breathtaking clarity.
But apart from this clarity, the rest of the relationships in this film feel murky.
While the father-son relationship is fleshed out, I was left wondering why the writers couldn’t have done the same for Eve, Liv Tyler’s character and Roy McBride’s ex-wife. There are very few moments where they’re together, and it’s hard to believe by the end of the film Eve is ready to romantically reconnect with Roy, as such little attention has been paid to her. Due to this, the end of this film leaves something to be desired, as it feels very tacked-on and cookie-cutter.
But I’m not going to let this bog down what I loved about Ad Astra. Ad Astra isn’t about extraterrestrials, exploring new planets, or a ragtag story of unlikely friends on a space ship. It is deeply human and relies on solitude, and what happens when this solitude is disturbed. When forces outside your control force you to question what you have known.
Ad Astra isn’t a space movie. It is a familiar story of a father and his son, but instead of having it happen under an Earthen roof, it expands its scope and turns to the stars, “ad astra”.
AD ASTRA (2019) 3/5
-Grace Lee (’21)