Some look at the stars and see infinity swirling before them. A smaller portion look upon existence stretching out before them in a sea of black littered with bright specks and feel a pull, a pull to explore, to quest, to see if there’s more beyond what the eye beholds or what science theorizes. That’s how we get adventurers like Buzz Aldrin and Neal Armstrong, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, as well as Scott Kelly and Jim Lovell. What pulls a person to travel beyond gravity’s hold into the unknown is singular and unique, not to mention a remarkable inspiration for storytellers. Director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) and co-writer Ethan Gross (FOX’s Fringe) draw from this to create a space odyssey which is futuristic, expansive, and largesse in style, while also being psychological, minimal, and extraordinarily personal in scope.
Set in a near future where commercial travel to the moon is fairly common and the United States Space Command has sent missions to Jupiter and Saturn, nothing seems out of the realm of possibility. Having grown up in the shadow of his father, Commander H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) feels a duty to achieve a similar level of success. As such, he’s the first person U.S. Space COM contacts after a strange electrical surge wreaks havoc on Earth and the source seems to originate at Clifford’s last known location, Neptune. This mission will not only take him to the outer edge of the solar system, further than he’s ever been, but it will be the ultimate test for the fate of the universe.
It’s a safe presumption that Ad Astra is a dramatic sci-fi adventure and that’s two-thirds correct. Though undeniably an adventure story wherein the dangers are life-ending, Ad Astra successfully keeps the stakes small and personal. In this way, the external dangers Roy faces serve more as commentary and less as obstacles for him to overcome. Humanity is able to travel to furthest planet in the solar system, yet they wage war on the moon. Yes, it’s a sequence which is beautiful, tense, and injects a much-needed bit of excitement into an otherwise melancholic tale, and the action within happens not to impact Roy (though it does), but to highlight the hollowness of humankind even in places heretofore only imagined. While Roy himself is disgusted by the shallowness, he himself is in conflict about his own place in the world. One in which he seems more comfortable exploring over taking part in.
If finding out that Ad Astra isn’t action-packed feels like a letdown, take comfort in knowing that, visually, James Gray and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) will knock you absolutely flat. In an opening sequence, Roy steps out onto a platform of the International Space Antennae floating at the edge of the upper atmosphere. The audience sees the black of space on top with Earth below and, as Roy climbs down a ladder, the camera follows, sending the audience on a slow descent after him. As your stomach lifts from the anxiety-inducing height, you can’t help but be filled with awe at the sight of the station so high above Earth. Later, as Roy rides in a rover on the moon, the lunar surface awash in silver grey and piercing black, the tranquility of the moment is brashly interrupted by the aforementioned laser-gun battle. These are two of several moments which blend peaceful wonder with the harsh reality of humanity, bringing to the forefront one of two themes Gray and Gross explore: the bittersweet duality of man’s relationship with nature told within a father-son story. Simultaneously breath-taking and soul-shattering.
Underneath the sci-fi trimmings, Gray and Gross created an elegant, awe-inspiring, extremely personal tale of self-realization and forgiveness. Chock full of metaphors and symbolism, Ad Astra never loses its tether, remaining fully locked in with reality. This is, of course, mostly due to Pitt’s performance, which conveys how blocked off Roy is from humanity without ever feeling distant to the audience. We feel for him, even if he can’t seem to do the same for others. It is, perhaps, why the final moments of the film are the most devastating to observe. Though present in smaller doses, the remaining members of the cast are equally effective, serving more to color the narrative as icons, not people. Yet, their respective performances offer a sense of dimension and weight which elevates the characters above the iconography. This in combination with the kind of direction that puts you right into the action, small or large, presents an experience similar to the transformative one which inspires so many to search the stars to begin with. By looking to the stars, by seeking something beyond ourselves we may indeed find ourselves. Seems almost like the same reason we go to the movies.
In theaters beginning September 20th, 2019.
Score: 4.5 out of 5.