When we look back on the 2010s and try to determine which films best exemplified the general mood of the decade, one surprising entry may be Ad Astra. The science-fiction tale is not only a breakout for director James Gray, but represents a haunting numbness to the spectacular surroundings the characters inhabit. Many comparisons could be made to last year’s big-budgeted space epic, the biopic First Man, a film that also featured an astronaut coming to grips with his emotions in the face of intimidating environments.
In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt delivers his most reserved performance as astronaut Roy McBride. Space fever is high in the McBride genes, as Roy is the son of H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who led an expedition into space when Roy was 16. But Cliff never returned and has not been heard from in decades. However, Roy is offered the proposition to hunt down his father, whom Roy’s superiors believe is responsible for the power surges that are threatening the cohesion of the solar system. Yes, Roy is essentially the Captain Willard to his father’s Colonel Kurtz, but hopefully no one will have to get shanked in the dark this time around.
Roy is apprehensive and isn’t even certain his father is still alive. Regardless, he trudges along, first taking a spacecraft to the moon (we even get to see brand logos on the moon, the film’s zenith of realism). We witness one spectacular set-piece after another, from a scene involving land rovers to unexpected attacks ripped right from a horror movie. Meanwhile, Roy is secretly struggling to keep his mental faculties upright while he contemplates the resentment he feels for the father who essentially abandoned his family. This is juxtaposed with Roy’s own bouts with commitment, centering on the relationship with his wife Eve (Liv Tyler).
Most of the film’s plot, while clinically sound, is just the glue that binds the movie’s themes of how to make the best use of our lives. Tommy Lee Jones is tragically despondent as Clifford McBride, a man so focused on his life’s ambitions that the film questions whether his priorities have always been in the wrong place. Even if Clifford is successful with his experiment, would it justify leaving his son mentally fractured? Yet, part of Roy wants to be like his father as evidenced by his decision to pursue the same career. Men do not express their emotions well, and this is especially true for the McBride clan who are exceptional at their job but lack basic relationship skills.
What is most intriguing about Ad Astra is how subdued the characters seem in extraordinary circumstances – and how surprisingly appropriate it all feels. We’ve seen a plethora of films depicting wide-eyed characters going on spectacular adventures while exhibiting a feeling of awe. Here, Roy is only mildly moved by the film’s sensational events unless it specifically deals with his relationship with his father.
Is that not apropos for a world where our sensory functions have been desensitized by way of technology? Where such advanced tools are always at our fingertips, making us neglectful of just how extraordinarily they are. The film is set in the near future, and it shows in the advancements in space travel that Roy experiences. He’s the first millennial astronaut, unfazed by the historic vessels at his disposal; completely fazed by his crippling existential dread.
Despite the characters’ purposely suppressed personalities, the film does not shy away from showcasing its wonderful special effects. While the digital imagery is impressive, it is the more practical stunts that are truly sublime. In particular, the opening scene which features Roy barely surviving a catastrophic mission. Where some space movies, such as Gravity (2013), depicted more pulpy sci-fi imagery, Ad Astra at times resembles some form of Cinéma vérité, as if we’re watching a GoPro of Brad Pitt being rag-dolled in the earth’s atmosphere, as well as space.
It is that combo of visual splendor and themes of mental fragility that has become the modern template of the space movie – an aim at photo-realism while chronicling the mental wear and tear of unique individuals. Ad Astra doesn’t soar past the genre’s best, but it belongs in the pantheon. If nothing else, it’s the first film in a long time that made me question how much our accomplishments truly matter if they can’t resolve our inner turmoil. We used to think the frightening unknown was in the abyss of space, but it’s really inside our own head.