Is it humanity’s doom, that it takes its greed and nationalistic/ ideological differences everywhere – even to the stars?
In the unspecified near future of Ad Astra, mankind has established colonies on the Moon and Mars, but still fights over their resources.
It’s no different from what we’ve seen on shows like The Expanse, and certainly a far cry from the optimistic, integrated future posited by Star Trek and its spinoffs.
Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) is not, however, a film about such conflicts, even if they do make their way into some scenes and conversations.
It is instead tightly focused on one man’s transformative journey and, in the process, powerfully drives home the enormity, burden and toll of space exploration (or any endeavour that seeks to bridge vast gulfs and blaze trails).
That man is astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a tautly self-controlled individual as distant from the people around him as the stars are from our grasp.
When a lost space mission commanded by his long-presumed-dead father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) suddenly becomes a threat to Earth, Roy is summoned to help.
But it’s a mission fraught with danger (from the conflicts mentioned above) and obstacles (from his own secretive superiors).
It is in the journey required by Roy’s mission, and his own path to dealing with the effect on his life of his father’s absence, which co-writer/director James Gray (Little Odessa, We Own The Night) tries to get us invested. For the most part, he succeeds.
Firstly, by staggering us with one reminder after another of how vast, desolate and yet dangerous space can be, and turning even seemingly irrelevant detours into little capsule nightmares that leave the viewer more thoroughly shaken than entire movies (I’m looking at you, Life).
Secondly, by eliciting a remarkably contemplative and relatable performance from Brad Pitt, whose subtle shadings of Roy’s bottled emotions (and their gradual uncorking) keep the viewer glued to the personal drama unfolding amidst all the spectacle of space exploration.
The difficulties, however, come in connecting this effectively realised portrayal to the characters and situations around the main character.
For one thing, the inevitable meeting of father and son (hardly a spoiler) is a little disappointing.
Clifford’s Captain Ahab-ness is frustratingly left undepicted, and we do not get enough of a handle on his character; snatches of classified transmissions and the brief face-to-face do not suffice.
(Some screen time would have been better utilised on this instead of, say, the lunar buggy chase sequence, impressive and believable as it is.)
And, with nearly every other supporting character reduced to mere plot propellant, we just have to make do with being told how much Roy’s aloofness has cost him – we never really get a sense of it, until quite late into his mission.
Fortunately, we have Donald Sutherland along for the early part of the ride (did his Space Cowboys connection to Tommy Lee Jones play a part in his casting?) to serve as kind of a guiding light, and we do get the sense that Roy misses having a father figure in his life in their scenes together.
Knowing of Gray’s work only from his gritty crime yarns, I have to say that the director proves quite sure-footed in his maiden voyage through a genre that can trip up the best of them.
And as space exploration dramas go, Ad Astra deserves praise for its scope, stunning visual achievements and strong central performance.
I did not feel cheated, like after watching Interstellar, for example; but was not as exhilarated as I was coming out of The Right Stuff, Gravity or The Martian, either.
While the intent of Gray’s bookends for the film is clear, too many unanswered questions remain about the aftermath of Roy’s journey – given everything that happens – for Ad Astra to be as uplifting and liberating as the personal triumph it declares.
Director: James Gray
Cast: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Loren Dean