In 2016 James Grey brought us the underrated ‘The Lost City of Z‘. A film that focused on the human need for exploration and understanding. Exploring the desire of humans to risk everything in answering the questions inherent in the unknown and unexplored. Ad Astra continues the themes of Grey’s earlier film. Mixing stunning cinematography with the human desire to answer the biggest question of our existence “Are we alone in our universe”. Creating a narrative that mixes these human desires and needs with the emotional detachment of exploration. The human desire to succeed at all costs interfacing with personal isolation of discovery.
Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride an astronaut renowned for his ability to stay calm under pressure. His dedication to his career having created isolation in his private life. His relationships and opportunities stifled by his unflinching devotion to space exploration. The need to achieve only enhanced by him being the son of the famous astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). A man who pushed the boundaries of space exploration. But also, a man who spent limited time with his son, teaching him emotional restraint while neglecting to offer a loving hand. His obsession with space exploration all encompassing at the cost of his family.
Roy McBride lives with the knowledge that his father went missing while on an expedition to the outer reaches of the solar system. His crews mission to find evidence of extraterrestrial life having failed. However, after life on Earth is threatened by a series of mysterious power surges emanating from Neptune. Roy finds himself enlisted on a top secret mission to find his fathers ship. The realisation that his dad may still be out there, awakening memories and emotions buried long ago.
In construct Ad Astra owes much to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Roy’s inner thoughts narrated by Pitt throughout. As the journey to find a man he thought was dead takes his own beliefs and thoughts to the edges of self analysis and reconciliation. His physical journey also a mission into the emotional recesses of childhood and teenage life. As he unpicks the character of a father built in his mind rather than reality of experience.
While the similarities between Ad Astra and Apocalypse Now are stark in construct and delivery. Ad Astra also plays with key themes of human progress. The war of Coppola’s film replaced by the destructive forces of the human expansion into space. The moons beauty replaced by shops, fast food outlets and tours; a critique on human exploration ultimately leading to destruction of the very thing we once aimed to protect and cherish. While our need to know our place and position in the universe, ultimately takes seconds place to our need to survive and thrive.
This human need for expansion and ownership in Ad Astra plays against the more emotional complexities of a damaged father/son relationship. A son paying the price of his fathers need for knowledge at the cost of a family and emotional love. While also following his fathers path; ultimatetly becoming the very image of the absent dad that torments him. With this in mind it would be easy to label Ad Astra as a film about masculinity and emotional suppression. However, the core narrative goes much deeper than this. This is a film about role models; reality versus the stories we create; and a sons need to believe in the goodness of a father who created the template for his own life. The baton of parental discovery and dreams passed to the child no matter of the individual cost.
For some Ad Astra will prove disappointing, their notions of a blockbuster science fiction film subverted by a think piece about the human condition. In a similar fashion to the Claire Denis 2019 film High Life, Ad Astra is firmly routed in the void between reality and fiction. Never truly embracing pure science fiction, as space entwines with human psychology and emotion. With Brad Pitt’s performance creating an unnatural calm that is slowly chipped away by his characters own repressed emotions.
Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is sublime, the flare of Kubrick inherent in the use of colour to create mood and tension. The dark reaches of space beautifully brought to life in a cinematic panorama of stunning visual imagery. Combined with sound design that embraces the void of space, and the noise of physical experience and human made technology. In creating a truly immersive visual and auditory journey similar in design to Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Gravity.
However, there are minor flaws in Grey’s film. The ending feels far too neatly wrapped when compared to the journey proceeding it. While some of the action set pieces feel slightly disjointed in the overarching narrative. However, James Grey has created a visually stunning piece of nuanced science fiction that while never quite carrying the emotional weight of a film like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Does provide a thrilling journey into the darkest reaches of space and the human condition.
Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise.