Review: Ad Astra

“To the stars” is where this film takes us, as well as into the start of the awards season. Look forward to many more upcoming movies that work to expand boundaries while also telling their own unique story. This film had several qualities that reminded me of other space movies like Arrival and Interstellar, I’ll dive deeper in this review but just as a starting point…if you liked either of those films, consider this one. I recommend this film, but often times we see a trailer for a movie like Ad Astra with a star like Brad Pitt at the helm and in our minds we automatically go to “big blockbuster,” which this is not. This movie is an in-depth look into the human existence and zooms in on a single man as he grapples with life and loss and the experience of confronting his emotions about it all. It is slow without the burn, and it asks viewers to go deeper and reflect as they take in the grandeur of space.
Roy McBride (Pitt) is an Army engineer in the not-too-distant future working on the International Space Antenna when a global surge hits and he is sent spinning back to earth. After waking, he is recruited by U.S. Space Command for a secret mission: to attempt contact with the missing Lima Project, a team of scientists in search of intelligent life and helmed by his father (Tommy Lee Jones). Although communication with the ship was lost 16 years earlier after reaching Neptune, SpaceCom believes not only that they may still be alive, but that they could also have information concerning the recent life-threatening power surges. As Roy travels to Mars to work with his own team of scientists, he reflects on and struggles with the emotions around losing his father, only to discover that he may not be the hero he remembers.
This film has a lot to unpack that isn’t really worth discussing spoiler-free. So unlike most of my reviews, I’m going to transition into working through some of those spoilers. You can check out here if you’d like and be encouraged to go see this movie on the big screen (I saw it in IMAX and it was well worth it), but if you want me to shed some light on not only the film’s conclusion but how it pulls together the character study of Roy McBride, the themes of inner and outer conflict and forgiveness and the sins of the father, and the strong connections to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey…well then keep reading.

…pause for effect…

Okay then, thanks for giving me some breathing room. I felt like I was suffocating up there in that non-spoilers talk. There really is a lot to look at in this film, as well as a lot to appreciate. For starters, the run time is perfect. It is a slow movie….I don’t need a slow movie to run any longer than 2 hours. Also, this film does a great job of pacing. There are lengthier scenes of more emotions than actions, but they are also broken up nicely by several great scenes with people doing more than saying/thinking. Roy is in his head a lot, especially throughout the journey to the Lima Project, and I think it is a very strong performance not only by Pitt but also the writers of the film, James Gray (Lost City of Z) and Ethan Gross. His inner dialogue is something worth following itself, as it shows his holistic growth from start to finish. Roy prides himself on keeping everything in check and it has cost him his marriage and any real life outside of his work, which in turn has caused him to work even harder at stifling any outward emotional responses. His fall back to earth and subsequent mission to travel through space can be taken very literally as his chance to recognize the unhealthy, emotional spiral he has been trapped in and the opportunity to make a change. The big picture of the mission is to save the Earth. The much smaller yet equally crystal clear picture is to save himself. It is an infinite, intimate journey.
Brad Pitt’s performance is fantastic. The close up of his face in several scenes says more than any amount of dialogue could and reminds me of how I felt watching Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 all those years ago. It says a lot about the actor, as does the fact that this is the second standout performance for Pitt this year (the other being Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood), both very unique in their emotive responses. I would frankly be just fine giving him all the awards and calling it a night. Behind his great performance is in turn a great cinematographer, the Dutch-Swedish Hoyt Van Hoytema. His recent credits also include The Fighter, Her, Interstellar, and Dunkirk, all Oscar-winning films (no big deal). Special effects have come a long ways even in the past decade, but what this man does within movement and lighting and framing is simply a delicacy. Every shot in this film is beautiful, and the solar system feels everything but void. The way everything was brought together for this film feels like a cinematic leap for “space films”. The various galactic locations were more than just a background, they held symbolic meaning for Roy McBride and his own journey. The Earth was not only his endangered home, but the emotional cage that he had built for himself, and in leaving it behind it allowed him the space to think. Space looked infinite yet the distance he needed to travel was in fact very finite, like the chasm that seemingly separated him from himself and from others. Mars brought a lack of sunlight and breathable air along with a people who seemed more melancholy in their day-to-day life, stuck in a rut of their scientific parents or grandparents’ choosing. For Roy, it became not an end to his mission but a stepping stone on which he had the choice to either return to his own sad existence or venture even further toward letting go of his emotional baggage.
In Roy’s final confrontation, he is faced with the reality that his father is in fact still alive and not at all the man he thought he was. Seen by many as a hero for his own selfless adventure into space to discover intelligent life, Roy instead finds a man responsible for the death of his crew, unwilling to leave behind a failed mission, and without a whisper of love for the family he left behind. The image of his father is a juxtapositional mirror for Roy’s own life and the mistakes he has made, and the man they would eventually lead him to become: broken, calloused, and lost. His father’s constant search for more despite his research findings and the people he has left behind intersects with Roy’s own emotional path, leading Roy to acknowledge that if we are truly alone in the universe, maybe it’s so that we can focus on appreciating the things we have right in front of us.
This film is incredibly dense and one that I am glad I went to go see with another person (shout out to my wife for enjoying films like this too!) because there are just so many allusions, motifs, metaphors, and epiphanies to chew on. I’ve had more to think about and discuss as the time passes after leaving the theatre, but one acclaimed work that I believe this movie brings to mind is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have to acknowledge this film because the tone is very similar, and although the internal narration is new, there are still several longer scenes where all we hear is the score or background noise. Also the few moments of tension along with lack of sound in space reminded me of Kubrick’s film too. As for a more direct story comparison, Kubrick’s protagonist Bowman is pulled through a time warp near the end of the film and finds himself face to face with his older self before being transformed by the monolith into a giant floating orb baby. Similarly, on Roy’s trip to Neptune he is pulled through space to meet his father and he is transformed by the acknowledgement of his future self without change. Gray’s work, although more about human connection, pays homage to its predecessor while also building on visual effects and other cinematic elements that have evolved throughout the years since.
So there you have it, some of the thoughts circling around my brain about this film (sorry if they seem mashed together nonsensically). I did really enjoy it despite the slow pace which is sometimes a turn-away for me…I’m working on it. There was one really awesome, fast-paced scene where Pitt was traveling across the moon with a security detail and they are attacked by “moon pirates” scavenging resources. It would be a very different film altogether, but a plot worth exploring nonetheless, especially in the style of the scene in this film 🙂 I guess Ad Astra just leaves one wondering if the “one giant leap for mankind” was a positive step in our evolution if everything we are running from here on Earth would simply follow us out into the galaxy. One thing is for sure though: Brad Pitt is winning an Oscar this year. Thanks for reading, once again. With my workload increasing I have been unable to finish any more recent streaming series, even though I keep talking about getting a review up. I am currently in the middle of 5 different shows, slowly making my way through multiple seasons and all will be review-worthy, I promise. So stay tuned and in the meantime go see a movie in theatre, cheers!

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