Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer
Far beyond the reaches of you and me, beyond our stars and satellites and into the vast, black, nothingness that is space, Roy McBride is on a mission.
The mission is fairly straightforward; travel to Neptune to find and rescue his father Cliff (played by Tommy Lee Jones) who’s been missing for 16 years after embarking on a search for intelligent life on the edge of our solar system.
However, the government believes he’s been conducting highly dangerous experiments that could put all of human life in danger. But as simple as it sounds, Roy’s voyage to the edge of our galaxy leads him to places that not only test his physical and mental limits but challenge his very understanding of himself and the man he thought he knew.
From its opening title card, James Gray’s “Ad Astra” differentiates itself from similar films like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Space Odyssey” and Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact,” which have these very clean, white title fonts.
This film’s sharp, thin and red title not only poses a stark contrast to those — the title is more reminiscent of classical drama or horror films like “The Exorcist” — it sets the tone for the rest of the film and tells the viewer that this isn’t going to be anything like them.
From the trailers that have been released and all of the other accompanying marketing materials, “Ad Astra” looks like any other sci-fi blockbuster action-adventure like “Interstellar” or “The Martian.” Please, please don’t go into this film thinking it’ll be either of those.
“Ad Astra” is an $85 million art piece. It’s a slow and meditative character study that I’m shocked even got made in Hollywood’s current landscape. It focuses less on the action and visual effects, and more on theme.
“The true genius and tragedy of ‘Ad Astra’ lies in the idea that only in complete solitude, faced against the vast nothingness of the cosmos, a man can truly be vulnerable.” — Brandon Shillingford
The film acknowledges the scientific progress we’ve made and how much we’ve achieved. But part of that progress is the cost of leaving everything we love behind. Being able to leave earth and travel to all of these, but in doing so we forget why we even went to space and who we’re leaving behind. It’s at times aggressively cynical, but immensely fascinating all the same.
Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, the repressed and emotionally stunted sad boy. With little things like a twitch in his jaw or a nostril flare, you see cracks in his “alpha male” persona in the beginning that hint at a much more complex character.
Roy is an impenetrable wall of poise, self-assurance and intelligence. He’s the confident hero who has come to get his job done and has no interest in being vulnerable or sharing his emotions. But as Roy travels deeper into space and you see the facade begin to fade away, you see a man who crushed by loneliness and isolation. His father abandoned him physically, and after that, his mother did the same emotionally.
The true genius and tragedy of “Ad Astra” lies in the idea that only in complete solitude, faced against the vast nothingness of the cosmos, a man can truly be vulnerable. You’re forced to be intimate in a place where nothing but the stars can see you. It’s deeply sad, while also incredibly profound.
It would have been perfect if it weren’t for Pitt’s narration that is mostly useless and seems awfully like a last-minute addition by executives who thought the film was too complicated without it. But thankfully Pitt’s performance does more than enough to make up for it.
With that being said, I would’ve liked some more depth to the fairly predictable story and the characters who weren’t Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. In the trailers, Roy’s wife, played by Liv Tyler, is featured in a way where you think she’ll play at least a somewhat prominent role. But she — along with every other supporting actor like Donald Sutherland and the extremely talented Ruth Negga — is barely in the movie.
It’s clearly influenced by films like “2001,” “Apocalypse Now,” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” and doesn’t apologize for it. And while it does borrow, it’s never derivative. It takes these films’ themes and visual cues and applies them to an environment and atmosphere that’s entirely original and beautiful. Most of this is in part to the stellar cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, who did similar work in 2014’s “Interstellar.”
In “Ad Astra” however, Hoytema focuses less on spectacle and more on using space and color in a way that emphasizes character and mood.
As visually mesmerizing as it is thematically, “Ad Astra” is an enthralling look at the psychological decay of a man, and a captivating look into the human condition. It isn’t a perfect film. It can meander and lose itself at times, plus not all of its characters are as intriguing as the ideas it presents.
But it’s weird, beautiful, heartbreaking and one of the most ambitious and introspective blockbusters I’ve ever seen. And the size of its budget along with the quality of the film is a great sign that studios and auteurs can make fantastic art together. And for that alone, I’m glad astra.