Space is an existential threat. There is so much of it – and so little of us – that trying to comprehend its enormity would probably destroy our brains. Leaving aside the Cold War, the Space Race was, at its core, humanity’s attempt to dominate space. The notion that we can dominate space is a cosmic joke, of course, and Ad Astra internalizes that idea. Writer and director James Gray understands the sense of wonder and adventure that comes with space films, and while there is some of that here, Gray treats that tradition with a sense of skepticism. It is rare to see a mainstream entertainment this life-affirming, and this subversive.
Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut who lives in his father’s shadow. We learn that his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) is part of the first voyage into our outer solar system, one whose purpose is to find intelligent life. Decades have passed, with Clifford presumed dead, except now some mysterious force emanates from his remote space station near Neptune. This force is destructive, threatening the life of everyone on Earth, so Space Command recruits Roy to contact his father. This is no small feat: it requires Roy to travel to the Moon, and then onward to Mars. As Roy gets closer to his destination, he becomes increasingly skeptical of the government agency that put him on this path.
In terms of pure speculative science fiction, Ad Astra tantalizes the imagination. Like Alien and Total Recall, it imagines how space exploration (and space tourism) might become ordinary. There are thoughtful details, like how the moon loses its majesty, or how life on Mars leads to a profound sense of alienation. Almost all this production design is accomplished through, with Gray inviting his audience to peer at the breadth of his world-building. And while there is a sense of wonder, there is a also a sense of a dehumanizing bureaucracy. At the end of every day, Roy must pass a psychological evaluation – he records his feelings, which are quickly accepted/rejected – and the impersonal evaluation has an palpable effect on his morale.
That sci-fi tradition, however, is where Ad Astra stops being like most space films. The key to its central themes is in Pitt’s performance. After decades of stardom, Pitt frankly has never been better. Even his voice-over is a stark break from his previous roles. He speaks candidly, with a measured sense of anger, as if he is the only person in the whole universe who internalizes the flaws of thoughtless duty and obedience. Roy is one cool cucumber – the film makes a repeated point of his steady heart rate – except that constant competence comes with an emotional toll. Pitt never reveals the full scope of what Roy feels, and that is the right choice. He invites us to see the man, while everyone around him only sees the mission.
Ad Astra has an appealingly episodic structure. It is no surprise that Roy eventually confronts his father, so the joy is in all the challenges he undergoes to get there. Gray includes some genre conventions, including a car chase and a horror sequence, and at first they seem like distractions from the somber journey. In the days since I’ve seen the film, I realized that the showier scenes are thematically consistent. You may have seen reviews that talk about space monkeys, and while they are a kind of novelty, the context for them gets at a greater purpose, sort of like HAL singing “Daisy.”
James Gray is a rebellious filmmaker, albeit in a roundabout way. You see his subversion in films like Two Lovers and The Immigrant. His style is unabashedly classical, to the point he may have been at home in in the 1940s or 1950s, except nowadays his simplicity is disarming. In formal terms, Ad Astra is straightforward, whether Roy undergoes a spacewalk or the conversation Roy has with his father. There were times where I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, except there are flourishes or hidden agendas. What you see is what you get, more or less, which is part of what makes the film all the more daring.
The adventurers in Ad Astra all serve a higher authority, and I mean more than God. They are bureaucrats, even while they are hurtling past Jupiter, and the film is about the inherent blind spots in such hierarchies. It is about what you lose when you have daily psychological evaluations, and your personal relationships are incidental to the stakes of the mission. Roy is the most efficient cog in a breathtaking machine, and because his role requires him to think for himself, he ultimately arrives at a self-awareness that most explorers never achieve. This film respects the infinity of space, but unlike most films about that void, its respect does not come with a need for control.