Ad Astra embraces the cold darkness of space
By Chase Hutchinson
It's a rare thing for movies in the science fiction genre, especially those involving space travel, to be not only pessimistic but also downright bleak. This most recent foray into that good night is a unique and in many ways fascinating experiment. I reference the poem delivered in 2014's Interstellar because that was my first thought upon hearing and learning about this film. That comparison, however, is too reductive. Yes, both films have a central theme of reconnecting with family and going to space. Ad Astra is a much more bold and audacious movie. I say this as someone who found Interstellar to be a compelling story (yes, including the interdimensional bookshelf ending).
What sets this most recent story apart is how it takes what feels like it could be more of a reflective exploration of the self in the vein of High Life or Prospect and gives it a much higher budget. Those two 2018 films were both more grounded and less hopeful about space travel. This is unique when too often narratives can get caught up in the mythology of space travel as the new frontier without realizing there is a darker side to this exploration. Ad Astra goes against this tradition and leans hard into this darker world.
It's budget doesn't end up being flashy or take attention away from this dark outlook. Rather it allows for the narrative to be expanded in a way that was intriguing to witness even as it took some missteps on it's ambitious spacewalk.
Describing the plot would make it sound more generic than it is. Brad Pitt plays against type as Roy McBride, a lonely and thoroughly pessimistic man whose father has disappeared years ago on an exploration to discover other intelligent life by traveling far enough out that they will not be impacted by the sun's radiation. Roy believes his father to be dead until he is told that the government believes him to be alive and responsible for a surge that is threatening the lives of everyone on earth. Therefore, Roy is instructed that he is to follow orders and reach out to his father. I won't go into any more detail beyond that as that is all that exists in the trailer. Oh, and he has a wife who left him because he was too focused on his job (the movie doesn't give her much of a character hence why it feels like an afterthought).
This almost feels unimportant as it is the tone that elevates this story. A science fiction movie about trying to get from Point A to Point B to address some mysterious threat has been done to death. The film is aware of this and this self-awareness is something that operates within the film and calls it into question. The director James Gray did this with his previous film, 2016's film The Lost City of Z by complicating and deconstructing the supposed heroism of adventurous explorers going into the jungle. What sets Ad Astra apart from that is how it, for the most part, doesn't pull any punches. It holds up the darkest aspects of ourselves and shows how those don't go away just because one travels into the great unknown. If anything, the known horrors of our nature are the only things that are known. As Roy comes to terms with his own demons and meditates on his own flaws the film shines brightest.
The story is best when it's kept grounded
There is much to be said about how certain space exploration movies can get caught up in the details of how everything is happening. Ad Astra is confident enough to have the characters know what they are doing and move along with precision. They are knowledgable but also flawed. It is these flaws that make the story a rich one. The sequence that stands out the most is the scene where Roy is being escorted across the "no man's land" of the moon to an awaiting ship that will take them to their next destination. They are set upon by unknown attackers who seek to steal from them in what feels like Mad Max on the moon. Roy is notorious for remaining calm and does so in this high stakes situation. However, there is this inescapable dread and melancholy that lingers from that moment on. It is the first hint of the deeper theme of underlying violence and fear that underpins the glamorous, slick futuristic world.
Speaking of which, this world feels thoroughly lived in and authentic. From the relaxation chambers to the repeated psych evaluations that Roy must undergo with frustrating frequency, all these details serve as excellent hints at the state of the world the characters are living in. The characters themselves are wonderful, even the ones that make brief appearances. Ruth Negga's appearance as Helen was especially noteworthy leaving me desiring for more of her character but understanding why she could only be present for such a brief time. She delivers the assistance and knowledge that Roy needs which exposes the tragedy that has been hanging over the story. The rest of the various crewmates Roy travels with all make the most of the time they have. Donald Sutherland serves as a brief but effective foil for Roy as well. Even Natasha Lyonne in the briefest appearance of all was wonderful to see. Their emotional expression serves most to show how cold Roy is to all of the world around him which leads to regrettably the biggest problem of the movie.
There is a lack of trust in the audience
The way movies function differently than other forms of storytelling is that they are a visual medium. The phrase "show don't tell" is often overused but with this story, in particular, it feels apt. There are incredible visuals throughout the story that establish the isolation that Roy is feeling. Which is why it feels frustrating that the movie can't just be a movie and let us watch it. Because my goodness does this movie really like hearing Brad Pitt do voiceover. Not only is it often unnecessary, it goes beyond that and is incredibly distracting. When he asks questions like "what happened to my father?" which we already know he is thinking about, it just sucks me out of the world. It would be fine to let it slide if it was subtle, but it hammers home the points by having him in moments of despair wonder aloud "what's the point?" as if it wasn't abundantly clear that he was at his lowest point based on the acting he was doing. It also didn't help that the delivery made me think of Pitt's widely mocked ad for perfume in which he speaks in a monotone voice with no real purpose.
If this was just the only flaw of the movie, I would be fine with it. I don't think the monotone delivery is accidental (though it did remind me of the delivery Harrison Ford purposely did poorly in one of the cuts of Blade Runner hoping they wouldn't use it only to discover they did) and it does fit Roy's character. He is an incredibly cold and broken person through which small glimpses of his true emotions are seen. The voiceover is unnecessary for this to be conveyed but it can be overlooked even when it comes in moments where silence would be vastly more effective. The problem mostly comes from the ending. It is building to a conclusion that would have been much better served if the last couple scenes had been cut. Instead, the story just has to hold your hand and ends on something that feels like a borderline fantasy based on the depressing journey that had made up the rest of the film. I can't explain why without spoilers so I would still recommend seeing it even with these flaws. It's a thoroughly powerful and unique addition to the genre that almost smuggled in a complex throughline into a more conventional narrative.
Continue on if you want to see why the ending undercuts that......
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The ending is strange in that it makes no sense on both a thematic and narrative level. The theme of isolation and the mistakes we've made catching up with us is totally abandoned because actually it's fine he just got back with his wife. The fairytale ending of them literally meeting at a coffee shop feels incredibly out of place. It genuinely feels like the film flinched. It feels like an attempt to give an uplifting ending to a narrative that was pointed the opposite direction for the majority of it. I am all for a redemption narrative but this was not earned. It feels thrown in and utterly out of nowhere. The reaction I had was one of confusion and bewilderment about why one would make a film that was doing so many interesting things by delving into this underseen dark underbelly of a genre only to completely abandon that trajectory. It was so quick that it didn't ruin the experience but definitely felt like it had almost been for nothing that the film had grappled with such complex issues only to throw up it's hands at the end.
On a narrative level, the movie seems to forget that there would likely have been consequences for the actions Roy took during the film. This again intersects with the theme of owning up to your past mistakes and taking accountability. Not only does that not happen, but everything seems utterly fine. No mention of the crew members that he essentially murdered. No mention of the mission he endangered for his own selfish actions. I have no problem with the character taking these actions, he knew what he was doing and seemed willing to face up to the consequences. For that to just be forgotten feels like a slap in the face. It frankly brings the quality of the film down because the entire weight of him doing things knowing he would be punished for them makes it all the more bizarre that the film just leaves it by the wayside. I wish that the film had not pulled it's punches at the last minute as that would have made this story not just a good one but a great one.