From The Martian to Moon, Interstellar and Approaching the Unknown, the last decade has had no shortage of ‘man alone in space’ movies. After Ryan Gosling’s entry last year with First Man, Ad Astra takes on the responsibility of bringing us on yet another journey of a man travelling through the final frontier, not to explore the outer limits of the galaxy, but instead the inner limits of his own emotions.
Twenty-six years prior to the film’s events, astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) went on a search for extraterrestrial life. After sixteen years his mission lost contact, and they have since been remembered as heroes. Now, energy surges are threatening the solar system, and the government believes McBride’s mission may be involved. They send his son Roy (Brad Pitt) on a mission of his own, to find out the source of the surges and put a stop to them.
You would be forgiven for thinking Ad Astra is adapted from a book. The heavy narration is reminiscent of a screenplay working to fit the words of a novel into a 120-minute film, but this is not the case. It is a necessary evil: the only way we get context in a movie with such an otherwise light script. The perspective is interesting, though. The vast majority of what we hear in this movie is Roy talking – that or silence and ambient space noises.
Not a whole lot happens in Ad Astra, making each thing that does that much more important. Roy guides us through the film, and everything is filtered through his eyes. Of course, Pitt does a great job. From a very tense opening that puts you right in the midst of everything through till the end, you trust Pitt to lead Roy’s story. It is almost a shame that his nuance is overtly explained by his narration. It is the film’s biggest let down, but without it there is a risk of being little to engage a viewer. It’s a risk that could really have paid off if committed to – what better way to make an audience feel even smaller in the vast setting of space than placing them in the same silence our protagonist is forced to suffer through?
Ad Astra wants to be deep. It wants you to feel. It looks amazing, no surprise. Any movie set in the endless domain of space has that ability to gut punch you with the feeling of insignificance. Interstellar’s own cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema returns to bring the imagery of deep space to the audience, and with it the same awe-inspiring feeling.
Director James Gray has made an incredibly introspective film that wants to illicit the same thoughts in its viewers. It ponders the big questions and brings up some interesting ideas, especially towards the end; it forces you into existentialism and contemplates the idea of humanity’s place in the universe. It is a political drama disguised as a space opera. It is also deeply religious. Ad Astra is a lot of things, it just feels the need to tell you it is. It hits hard with a message that would have been much more impactful if it let the audience draw the conclusion themselves.
The message, regardless, is an important one. If it takes Ad Astra to make somebody realise that they should allow themselves the ability to feel, then you can’t really fault it for doing its job. A few days after seeing the movie and the memories of it are better than the immediate reaction. As a wise man called Pitbull once said: “Reach for the stars, and if you don’t grab them at least you’ll fall on top of the world”. Ad Astra seems to land somewhere in between: just short of amazing, but with moments of awe.
by Georgia Carroll
Georgia Carroll is a Broadcast Journalism student from the University of Leeds, currently living and studying in Wellington, New Zealand. She is a proud Mancunian who loves radio, film and pretty much anything sci-fi or 80s. You can find her on Twitter and letterboxd here @georgiacarroll_