Ad Astra (New Regency, PG-13)

When I sat down to see Ad Astra, I had only the slightest clue what the plot of the film would be. A huge nerd for space, sci-fi, Brad Pitt, and Tommy Lee Jones, I wasn’t super concerned with what the movie was about as much as I was concerned with how these actors would perform under James Gray’s direction. Gray (We Own the Night, Immigrant) is no stranger to intimate, personal, character drama, and while this film didn’t feature his go-to star Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt has more than enough muscle to carry the burden.

Even if I had planned on doing as much research as possible, trying to pick apart what this film was going to focus on, I’m fairly confident I would have found myself in the same place. Ad Astra’s marketing campaign was deliciously spare, doling out only the smallest hints at plot and subplot. For the first time, in years it feels, I sat down to a film with no idea what I was actually going to get. Friends, Ad Astra does not disappoint.

Ad Astra is Latin for “to the stars,” a decidedly mundane title for a film about space. My first reaction to the title was to remember a quote I want to get tattooed on my skin: “Astra inclinant, sed non obligant.” More on that later.

From the outset this film uses proximity liberally. As Gray is wont to do, he draws the viewer in on his subject to establish the purpose of his film. In Ad Astra, Roy McBride, played brilliantly by Brad Pitt (Inglorious Basterds, Fury), is the intrepid son of one of humanity’s greatest astral pioneers, Clifford McBride. He is a calm and collected man of singular mind and body. It is established that his heart rate hasn’t risen above 80 bpm in years. Before long his calmness, very nearly ataraxia, is challenged by a series of events sending him careening across the solar system to find his father before it’s too late.

The establishment of McBride as this stoic figure is done gracefully, never truly feeling like out of place exposition. Gray’s direction comes into play here again. Very few things are said about Roy specifically, yet the world around him is portrayed in the way he sees it. Extended moments of silence are more often broken by noise than they are by words, and when words do break the silence they are frequently spoken by Roy internally. A staple of the noir genre, this internal dialogue juxtaposes well with the sci-fi setting Gray has created, and boy is this setting interesting.

There is lore to the state of the universe Ad Astra evokes that feels so vibrant and deep, yet the film moves past it quickly. Still I caught myself thinking backwards on just-transpired events frequently. In a moment on the Moon a band of pirates is encountered, prompting cascading thoughts of how piracy would come to be given the lawlessness of the lunar surface. In another instance, a distress beacon is responded to and the events that transpire will do little to sate the viewers curiosity of what is actually happening. We are focused on McBride’s journey, after all.

And what is his journey? Without giving too much away, it is the journey of a man who has isolated himself in pursuit of perfection. To what ends? I’m still unsure. See, Roy’s path in Ad Astra isn’t solely his own. As the minutes progress in this film, and as plot points reveal themselves, a parallel can be seen between Roy McBride and his father, Clifford. This plays out in many ways, but none stands apart more than the moment Roy attempts to send a message to his father. I have long been a fan of Brad Pitt’s work, but what he does in this movie, specifically in this scene, is a testament to his ability and passion for his roles. It’s hard not to just sit in awe for most of film. Truly.

Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, The Homesman) is Ad Astra’s ace in the hole. Popping up periodically in videos and documents, Jones makes the most of the screen time he has. Is he the man his son wants him to be or is it all an illusion? Or could he even be something else? Sent to the edge of the solar system to search, uninhibited, for extraterrestrial life, the results of Clifford McBride’s mission linger in the back of your head the entirety of the film. What did he find?

Ad Astra plays these moments out patiently and with great care. Each clue and development lead the audience forward, yes, but without playing into the tropes that mysteries and character studies often lead films into. One could argue a twist exists in this movie, but one could argue the opposite just as easily.

In the last decade, we have been treated to exceptionally good movies taking place in the void beyond our atmosphere. Ad Astra joins Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian, First Man, Moon, and Arrival with ease. I find it to be no coincidence that Ad Astra‘s cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema was also responsible for the visual candy Interstellar gave its viewers. You will notice the similarities in how space is shot, almost as if it is its own character. You will notice the willingness to linger on facial expressions. Ad Astra is a beautiful, personal, and thrilling experience.

Astra inclinant, sed non obligant” means: The stars incline us, they do not bind us. It is the distinction of free will from astrological determinism. Roy McBride struggles to break free from similar determinism in this film. Whether it is his father’s, his own, or the will fate itself, is for you to decide. Choose all that apply. | Caleb Sawyer

One comment

  1. I saw on a Reddit thread what I think many reviewers miss, is that the story of Ad Astra fits neatly into a recent subgenre of science fiction termed, by its proponents, “mundane” sf (see W’pedia); the film also has interesting parallels with Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent sf novel Aurora. There’s a key line in the film near the end, whose matter-of-factness disguises its importance for the whole film. The Brad Pitt character is consoling his father over the latter’s despondency over the failure to contact other intelligences; Pitt tells him that he did not fail; he found out we’re alone and on our own. The film has a number of symbols and narrative strategies that underline the same point: the beauties of the Earth as seen from low earth orbit, a view familiar to us but still striking, appropriately frame the beginning and end of the movie, in what is more than a 2001 homage. And when at the very end Liv Tyler, playing Pitt’s estranged wife, appears to see him again after he’s returned to Earth, OMG, she symbolizes, echoes, whatever you want to call it, Mother Earth, where we can thrive amidst her life and her night and especially her day, unlike the perpetual and dangerous darkness of even our own outer solar system. Forget the unimaginably distant stars, the movie tells us; the far depths of our own solar system may be, certainly for some time to come, as much alienness as the human species can deal with (or not!). Given the movie’s particular science fiction context, you can bet that many fans of warp 6 starships and whatever Star Wars ships do will absolutely hate this movie. I’m a tough critic, still consider 2001 the benchmark work among space movies, and I think Ad Astra far better than any of the other movies mentioned here, especially the overblown Interstellar, which may share the same cinematographer but that’s about it.

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