Ad Astra (2019)
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross
Directed by James Gray
Ad Astra is like Apocalypse Now mixed with 2001 and directed by Terrence Malick. That is a very loaded statement, but it’s the most accurate way I can sum up this film in a single line. Is it as good as those individual parts? No, but it is still one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in years. The story is kept centered on the characters while allowing space for awe & wonder over the cosmic landscape. There are brief moments of action & peril that help to punctuate how empty and cold the solar system feels. This is an odyssey in a not too distant future that feels like the most likely bland extrapolation of what humanity would do with a conquered solar system.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an officer in SpaceCom, a branch of the military overseeing all things beyond our atmosphere. A crisis strikes when a series of anti-matter pulses, originating around Neptune, start to disrupt systems and lead to horrible deaths. Roy is briefed that the source is believed to be his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Decades earlier, when Roy was a teenager, his father left on a mission to search for intelligent life beyond the interference of the sun’s radiation. Something happened onboard, and SpaceCom believes Clifford is attempting to wipe out humanity. Roy is tasked when making a journey to Mars in an attempt to send a message and bring his father back in.
The first striking thing about Ad Astra is the decision to go with logical extensions and scientifically accurate interplanetary travel. Lunar landers touch down on a moon colony. Ships’ crews must contend with a lack of gravity on board. Traveling between words is faster now but still takes time; the trip from the Moon to Mars is 79 days long. There are no warp drives or photon torpedoes here. Things move slowly, and little procedural details must be attended to.
A recurring theme throughout the film is that being so far from Earth, in a low gravity environment will have not just physical but psychological effects on humans. Director James Gray lets us in on this aspect without heavy exposition. The crew of the ship taking Roy to Mars ingests their mood stabilizers before setting off, it’s a routine they barely think about. Travelers must take psych evals daily, particularly before leaving one location, and if they fail, they are grounded until further notice. But the film’s message is all about the cold distance that removes our humanity. Roy is praised by SpaceCom as one of few officers whose pulse has never gone above 80. For the purposes of his career, this optimal, but we learn his emotional distance has led to Roy’s marriage falling apart.
Throughout his journey, we meet several people that seem like they’ll play an important role, but Roy is too removed from these connections that they serve their purpose and drift away. In this manner, the audience is kept firmly in the psyche of Roy, hearing his internal narration and seeing brief glimpses into his past. If these supporting characters feel unemotional, that goes back to the condition that people engaged in interplanetary travel must be “psychologically sound.” It appears SpaceCom interprets that as devoid of emotion or intimacy.
The climax of the picture might feel like a letdown to some, but I thought it was entirely in keeping with the ambient tone of the whole film. This is not a movie about explosions and battles, though we see those happen. Ad Astra is about seeking a better understanding of the inner self by going to the farthest extremes of the material world. Only when Roy reaches the edge of the solar system can he know both his father and himself. In this moment of understanding, he can transcend his disconnection, and the film caps off with an ambiguous note of hope, a possible connection in Roy’s future.
Humanity has become obsessed in Roy’s time with seeking out life beyond our worlds. But as Roy journies through the solar system, he ruminates that mankind has just recreated what it claimed to be running away from. Instead of using this as an opportunity to explore new ways of creating societies & communities, they have transferred greed and resources hoarding to other planets. We are left to wonder that, by the time man would find a kindred soul in the cold depths of space, would he be left with any way to connect with it that wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes of the past?