Reviewed by Steve McGowan I went into Ad Astra not knowing very much about the picture besides what the trailers reveal; a science fiction film about an astronaut on a mission to uncover a mystery about his father missing in deep space. It was an original screenplay instead of the usual tired franchises and reboots and remakes, and I always welcome that, so I went in with a blank slate. I came out reasonably entertained, but also longing for something more. Mild spoilers follow.
The film is directed by James Gray and is set in the “near future”. Humanity has space outposts on the moon and Mars, and is seeking life beyond our solar system. From that premise, I guess I was expecting some manner of interesting sci-fi theme in the film when I went in. However, I soon realized that the science fiction aspect is just a backdrop; the real tale is about one man’s confrontation with his inner demons and trying to reconcile with his long-lost father. The man, stoic astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), is our lone protagonist and point of view character. We see the world through his eyes, and we hear his narration of the events unfolding around him. When Roy was in his teens, his father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) left on a space mission called the Lima Project which propelled him and a team of scientists to the edge of the solar system to find signals of extraterrestrial life. The mission went south, the Lima Project went dark, and Roy assumed his father was dead. However, when the Earth is bombarded by electromagnetic radiation that disrupts electrical systems and threatens the existence of the planet, the government traces the source of the emissions to where the Lima Project should have been, in orbit around Neptune. They think the senior McBride may still be alive, and perhaps responsible for the electromagnetic bombardment.
The US government’s space agency (called “Space Command” or “SPACECOM”), enlists Roy to try and make contact with his father and find out what’s going on. Roy soon suspects they’re not telling the whole story, but goes along with it anyway, with hopes of contacting his long-lost father again. What follows next is a space adventure that takes Roy to the Moon, and then to Mars, and beyond. Roy uncovers truths and secrets, and must eventually find his way to his father. Roy’s emotional journey underscores the film; feeling abandoned by his father, we gradually learn of his resentment towards his father, which conflicts with the admiration he also feels for him. While Brad Pitt’s performance is superb in this regard, this aspect of the film doesn’t really break any new ground in the “troubled relationship with absent dad” genre of stories.
What’s more interesting is the world-building of the movie. Humans have colonized the moon and Mars, and travelling to those outposts from Earth is a routine event. In most films, space travel is either super-realistically dangerous and complicated (like in Alfonso Cuoron’s Gravity) or so mundane it’s like taking a cab to the office (like in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek). Ad Astra feels like a bridge between those two extremes; the rockets and spacecraft still look like it came from our era, but the technology has been perfected and commoditized so that things like commercial space travel is possible between worlds. Unlike the super-optimistic futures depicted where we has a species have progressed beyond borders and conflicts, we have instead brought our problems with us to space. There are territorial disputes, war on the moon’s surface over mining resources, just like on Earth. We don’t see too much of this, but one of the movie’s few action sequences involve a moon buggy chase with space pirates.
Ultimately, this is a tale of a man’s struggle with is inner demons, but set in space. It’s not to say there aren’t any big ideas in the film, it’s just they take a backseat, sprinkled in the background to garnish the Roy’s journey. I am not entirely sure some of the science behind the plot points are sound, as I suspect some of it is just technobabble, despite the grounded realistic look and feel the filmmakers were trying to achieve. Visually, it’s a gorgeous film, meant to be seen on the largest screen, with some spectacular set pieces. However if you were expecting to have your paradigms shifted by this film, you might be disappointed.
I give Ad Astra 3 out of 5 rocketships.