Directed by James Gray
“Ad Astra” will likely disappoint those viewers hoping for an action-oriented space drama, as it delivers an experience more “2001: A Space Odyssey” than, say, “Gravity.” Although visually epic at times, this is a thoughtful rumination on life, purpose, and truth, largely driven by a narrated inner monologue from Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride, the central character.
McBride is a career astronaut, introduced to us as being respected and sought after for his unflappability under pressure. And while there are action sequences, especially early on, they’re essentially interludes designed to reinforce this cool and calm persona – the action doesn’t matter, McBride’s responses do.
For much of the first half of the film, as we watch him deal with whatever is thrown at him with little variation in demeanor or pulse rate, it reminded me of Pitt’s similarly mellow character on the recent “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” There, his Cliff Booth is our fantasy version of the ultimate Hollywood stuntman, able to drive fast through any type of traffic, fight Bruce Lee, and jump onto rooves, seemingly without breaking a sweat. We know Cliff must, on occasion, meet his match or encounter something he can’t simply brush off, because he has the scars to prove it, and they serve in that film as a hint of the mayhem that will eventually ensue.
In “Ad Astra,” McBride tells us of his difficulties with relationships and his manner of compartmentalizing his feelings, and there’s a similar expectation that at some point that technique is going to get outgunned by circumstance. The boy raised to suppress his emotions who becomes a man unable to successfully express his emotions, and whether that makes him the most or least healthy person in a room.
This is a not too distant future where the life of an astronaut has largely transitioned from the exotic to the mundane. McBride is an engineering crew chief who, today, might be working on power stations or oil rigs, but who happens to do similar tasks in a spacesuit, having followed in the footsteps of his famous, boundary pushing astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones).
We’re reminded of the normalcy of things that would astound us otherwise, in the small details. Sure, a flight to the moon requires a spacesuit just in case, but McBride still strolls through the spaceport to his gate and gets charged extra when he asks for a pillow and blanket. This may not seem like the best product placement exercise for Richard Branson’s Virgin, already attempting engaged in space travel attempts, but the message is that this isn’t special or all-inclusive anymore, it’s simply the commercial flight of its time, along with the same nickel and diming, on the way to a moon equipped with Applebee’s restaurants.
It’s also a future where expansion has somewhat mirrored the oceanic exploration of Earth. Like international waters, large unclaimed areas on the moon are patrolled by pirates and in space, Mayday signals trump other protocols. Again, it’s space with all of the logistical concerns of vacuums and radiation, but the problems haven’t really changed that much.
The older Mcbride is revered for traveling to the outer reaches of the solar system, in search of clear signals that might have confirmed the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. And much of “Ad Astra” revolves around questions of belief, what happens when lifelong beliefs are challenged, and whether it’s easier to want to know something or to know it – given that truth isn’t always what we would like it to be. There’s a potential tension here between religion and science although the film, as with the much less cerebral “San Andreas,” carefully positions the scientist as a person of faith rather than as an opponent. McBride senior was a man on a mission, both literally and figuratively, and not a man to let societal morality get in the way of personal moral conviction.
Another similarity with “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is the presence of a strong female character and depiction in a film primarily driven by two male characters – although both films have been criticized for the lack thereof. Ruth Negga plays the Director of the Mars colony, in a performance that is stronger and more pivotal than screen time alone might imply.
For a film dismissed by some as a male fantasy about Daddy issues, there’s a lot going on here. The science is largely meaningfully accurate, and interesting questions are posed about beliefs, as mentioned, and the nature of heroism and risk – are actions heroic if one doesn’t value life or perceive risk? And what happens to a life when its purpose or central tenets are challenged or removed?
There are moments of awkwardness in the film, especially during expository dialog aimed at a character but really targeted at the audience, and where the character wouldn’t need to be told those things. But this is generally a film that will keep detail oriented audience members and those who like to think about a movie more than simply watching it quite happy. But it’s also a film likely to struggle to find a general audience equally comfortable with the long pauses and languid pace.