Illustration by Andrea Nebhut
In the era of endless comic book movies, book adaptions and sequels, it is always nice for a blockbuster movie that stands entirely alone, especially when it is a thought-provoking space epic among rarities like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” James Gray’s “Ad Astra” (Latin for “To the Stars”) certainly captures what any space lover, like myself, wants to see on screen: the emotion, the solitude and the wonder. But whether that pleasure translates to a casual audience boils down to the amount of effort put in by the audience to dissect the film’s complex and subtle themes.
“Ad Astra” is mostly a one-man show, featuring Brad Pitt as Roy McBride, with brief, plot-driving roles by Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga. Tommy Lee Jones plays Clifford McBride, Roy’s father, who has disappeared during orbit around Neptune in search of extraterrestrial life aboard the top-secret Lima Project. The government would love to forget about the whole thing, but the project is emitting high-energy pulses and creating disastrous power surges when they reach Earth. This is enough to convince Roy, who now internalizes all of his emotions after being abandoned by Clifford as a child, that his father is still alive. He agrees to a solar system-hopping excursion — first to the moon and then to Mars — in an effort to be within communication distance of Clifford. The plot is reminiscent of Interstellar, where a problem on Earth generates an epic space quest to solve it, all the while maintaining some big secret.
However, “Ad Astra” sidelines that secret, waving its hand elsewhere in an attempt to focus on the journey, not the outcome. “Ad Astra” is all about humanity.
In the first act, Roy makes a pit stop on the moon where a rocket awaits to blast him off to Mars. Luxury hotels and restaurants have completely commercialized designated safe havens. Outside lies no man’s land, where rogue militants run rampant and through which Roy needs to cross. When Roy and his team are, ambushed by moon pirates, Gray’s cinematography peaks, eliciting an aesthetic similar to “2001: A Space Odyssey” where silence dominates the action. There is no booming soundtrack or massive explosions, only the rapid breaths of Roy’s team and the devastating gunfire that punches straight through the astronaut helmets as the ugliness of humanity simultaneously punches us in our chairs.
Although we are in space, that greed of humanity feels familiar. Gray builds on this relatability and depicts Mars as the complete opposite, a host to isloted government bases deep underground. Even the notion that the government is aware of and protected by some deadly force we are vulnerable to hits a little too close to home.
At the core of this story, however, is the journey of Pitt’s character, Roy McBride. Although Roy is structured to be emotionless and composed in all situations, Pitt adds a layer of depth. During the relay of his message to his father in an attempt to elicit a response, Pitt holds back tears that one would expect to accompany the scene. Unfortunately, this lack of emotion and the resulting “blank staring” can come off as dull to those who don’t want to dedicate their cinematic experience to get Roy to tell us how he really feels. When he does finally confront his father, Pitt unlocks and lets that emotion spill out, which does have an air of satisfaction to it, but waiting over an hour and a half to finally get there may have already lost some of the audience’s ability to fully appreciate it.
Furthermore, it turns out the secret was easily kept a mystery throughout the majority of the film because it unfolds to be a big “so what?” The movie doesn’t end like “Interstellar,” with reality-defying physics, or like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with more questions than answers. In fact, the movie provides more closure than most space epics. It’s a one-and-done tale, answering what it set out to answer in a relatively simplistic manner.
That simplicity, of course, doesn’t ruin the movie but defines what kind of movie Gray set out to create. “Ad Astra” takes us further to the stars than we imagined it would, but keeps the human elements we are familiar with constant throughout, just on a solar system level. The effort to portray a simple story on that scale is admirable, making it a definite for space epic fans. But if you are looking for a casual movie and have already seen “It Chapter 2,” the complex and interesting themes are certainly there, but the enjoyment of those concepts ultimately resides in how much of them you are willing to uncover yourself.