Ad Astra is a new sci-fi film starring Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride who is assigned to a top-secret mission to Neptune. A few decades from now, humanity has gained a foothold in our solar system with bases on the Moon and Mars. Years earlier, McBride’s father, Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut, went to Neptune on a mission to find intelligent life beyond our system. However, the mission apparently failed as Earth lost contact with the elder McBride. At the start of Ad Astra (which is Latin for “to the stars”), mysterious power surges from Neptune engulf the Earth and threaten all life in the solar system. Roy McBride is tasked to establish contact with his father, who is believed to be alive and somehow causing the surges.
This may sound like a fairly simple plot, but Ad Astra is more complex and thought provoking than one might think. Directed by James Gray, who directed the pensive The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is just as reflective as Gray’s previous film as it chronicles Roy McBride’s long journey to possibly reunite with his father. The film is certainly not an action-packed fest, but more of a slow burn that for the most part engages the mind. There are arresting sequences that grab attention, such as a thrilling moon rover chase sequence involving pirates, and a claustrophobic visit to a distant space lab. In between these scenes, we are left to ponder Roy McBride’s ambivalent feelings towards his long-lost father and his own failings in trying to live under the shadow of his father’s legacy. In some strange way, McBride’s reflections echo Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the visual look of the film evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey.
On the whole, Ad Astra is a mesmerizing watching experience. The space sequences are simply beautiful with magnificent special effects and photography. James Gray supposedly was insistent on making futuristic space travel as realistic as possible and it shows in this film. There isn’t any ludicrous technobabble and though humanity has expanded into the solar system, voyagers still contend with zero-g conditions and use rockets. The scenes on the Moon best echo 2001 in how commercialization and civilians make a voyage to the Moon feel a bit humdrum. It’s not gritty (that aesthetic is saved for McBride’s visit to Mars), but very average and comfortable as the Moon bases are littered with commercial properties like Applebee’s and D.H.L.
Clearly, the first half of Ad Astra is the most engaging as it presents us with a grounded travelogue of space travel in the future. But issues with the film’s plot and pace come up in the second half. The film requires constant attention, but it becomes a bit too ponderous and the payoff at the end doesn’t quite resonate, Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross try to present an important message and an intense spiritual journey, but the delivery is muddled and the payoff feels anti-climatic. There isn’t anything wrong with their message about ourselves, but unlike the stunning visuals of the film, it doesn’t have much emotional impact. What lessens the film’s flaws, aside from the visuals, are Brad Pitt’s charismatic performance. This kind of film demands a certain type of actor that audiences will want to empathize with and Pitt fills the bill perfectly. Other supporting actors have small but memorable appearances throughout.
Ad Astra is the kind of film that is meant to marinade after viewing it. Anyone hoping for an action film or a thriller are better off seeing Rambo: Last Blood or It: Chapter Two. Others who are seeking a cerebral experience, or a vehicle for inner reflection, or just want to see an unforgettable and plausible look at our future will appreciate Ad Astra.