“Space is big. Really big,” mused Douglas Adams. When we think of the vast expanse of space, we are reminded just how small and insignificant we are, how dwarfed in comparison to the infinite reaches of the cosmos our species truly is. Curiously enough, some of the best films about what it means to be human have used space as their setting. When faced with the endless void of the final frontier, we are forced to look in upon ourselves.
Humanity’s fascination with space can be traced throughout cinema history, from the earliest days of silent cinema with George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, to Stanley Kubrick’s monumental sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The last few years have graced us with more grounded space films such as The Martian and Gravity, though occasionally a director will go in a more philosophical direction like Christopher Nolan with Interstellar, or James Gray with his new film Ad Astra. The title, meaning “to the stars”, sets you up for a space adventure about our search for meaning in the universe, and make no mistake, that is what Ad Astra is. But while the plot of the film may take us across our solar system, the true journey at the core of the film is an emotional one.
We follow astronaut Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt giving his best performance — there, I said it), as he searches for his father, who disappeared on a mission many years ago. Earth is facing an environmental crisis and it is believed that Roy’s father, wherever he may be, may hold the key to saving the planet. While a number of elements in Ad Astra invoke Interstellar and Contact, the main comparison that came to mind was Apocalypse Now, with some near-identical story beats and a similar use of narration (I’m not the first to make this comparison, and James Gray cites Heart of Darkness — the basis for Apocalypse Now — as an inspiration for this and his previous film).
Brad Pitt’s self-reflective narration is omnipresent and integral to the film. Some may find it overbearing and unnecessary, but I believe it absolutely helps us get in the head of Roy McBride and keep connected to his emotional state. There are times where the themes of the film are perhaps a little too explicitly outlined in the narration, but I never felt like it was being used as a crutch. As well as the voicework, Brad Pitt’s onscreen presence is a beautiful display of subtlety and restraint, making an emotionally distant character thoroughly engaging. Pitt carries the film on his shoulders, and I think a lot of the film’s impact comes from moments focusing on him alone.
It’s best to keep the plot of Ad Astra as vague as possible, but I will say this isn’t just an insular, reflective movie. There is a fair amount of action — including a claustrophobic rover chase on the moon’s surface — and a surprisingly fast-paced story, given the amount of meditative moments we get. If I have any criticism, it’s that these moments feel a little like distractions from the rest of the film. There are also several points — and this may be a deal breaker for some — where the laws of physics are strained and suspension of disbelief is mandatory, but this didn’t bother me at the time. Roy McBride’s emotional arc is so well-executed and powerful that I can forgive the film’s leaps in logic.
Ad Astra, like the very best sci-fi, uses the canvas of space to explore deep ideas about human nature. It’s easy to see it as merely another space movie, albeit one with a clear emotional centre, but you can come away with so much more if you dig deeper. Ad Astra works well as a cosmic adventure, but when it’s grappling with questions about our existence, our bonds with others and the ways in which we search for purpose, it’s brilliant. I strongly encourage anyone to go see it while it’s still in theatres, otherwise you will be missing out on seeing one of the year’s best films the way it should be seen.
Review by Shea Gallagher