Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt
To get it out of the way, yes Ad Astra is a lot like Interstellar, no it’s not quite as good. But that film was a revelation, an instant sci-fi classic, on par with the best we’ve ever seen from the genre, with music and emotion and adventure that rocked not our world but our universe; I hope you agree, because otherwise we can’t be friends. OK, I joke, but that’s how I feel about Interstellar, despite a few flaws, and that’s a lot to live up to when coming out with a film that’s quite similar, and Ad Astra never hides from the fact that is has a lot in common with a lot of what we’ve seen before. But while it’s in no way the first of its kind, this movie is still bad ass enough to demand our respect, and to stand alone as perhaps the science fiction event of the year. Its core is so solid that nothing can penetrate from the outside, not our expectations, not our prejudgments, and definitely not our often overly-critical eyes, which sometimes get us into more trouble than is warranted. Ad Astra builds its protective layers from the first scene to the last, leaving audiences weaponless but astonished, and thirsty for more.
In the near future, mankind’s urge to explore the stars has reached new heights, or should I say new lengths. We’ve built towers that reach space, commercial centers on the Moon, military bases on Mars, and have even sent brave souls to the outer reaches of our solar system to escape the Sun’s magnetic forces. Out there, we hope to be able to finally communicate with extra-terrestrial life, if it’s out there, and there are many who believe that it must be. Among them is decorated space hero and pioneer Clifford McBride, who leads a team to Neptune to further the reach of science. But his crew has been silent for too long, they are believed dead, and so progress takes a step back in defeat. Years later, something near Neptune pulses and a power surge nearly cripples our entire planet, leading the US government to believe that McBride might still be alive, and might also be trying to destroy us. His son, Roy, is sent on a top secret mission to communicate with his father to try to make the madness stop, before more drastic actions are taken. Roy’s journey, one that grows ever longer with each complicated step, will become one not only of global importance but personal relevance, as he attempts to close a rip though the fabric of his life that he thought he would never get a chance to mend.
There’s so much to say about Ad Astra, it’s hard to know where to start, which is why I’m diving right in with an admission of feeling in over my head. That’s a common theme throughout this film though, the idea that events are larger than an individual life, that it would take luck to even survive, which could make you curl up and accept defeat or push forward with apparent bravery, when really the prevailing understanding is simply that fate is out of your hands. Roy pushes forward because he must; he knows that at any step he might die, but instead of crippling him with fear this knowledge allows him to stay calm and continue no matter what, for him it’s freeing in a way. That’s something I focused in on as this story unfolded, that moments, even life-changing ones, just happen, they aren’t directed, and there’s no choice other than to march forward toward whatever is waiting at the end of the path. It doesn’t always make perfect sense, but you do what you feel is right at the time and you hope for the best, because there is very little in your control, only your own actions, and even those are too often dictated by something or someone else.
Not all will hear that same message, the movie will affect everyone differently I’m sure, but that’s part of its beauty; it’s a story that is simply told, events occur because they come next, we are merely passengers on this voyage, and we will all experience it uniquely. The film is a slow burn for sure, because, although action does take place, there are plenty of moments to think, reflect, and process, before we’re off again on another leg. Roy meets many people along the way in a series of cool cameos, he makes another decision, and we hear his internal dialogue as he progresses to the next phase; again, watching like this makes the film feel like an inexorable march toward something unknown, but definitely something exciting and dangerous in turn. There are intense sequences followed by introspective moments, there are great characters that pop up and then move aside, there is an over-arcing theme with side points along the way; Ad Astra is not for anyone who fears to put in the work alongside the hero, to be a part of the narrative as it unfurls. And Brad Pitt was the perfect actor to take on this complicated role, he has aged into this part wonderfully, and his supporting cast, even with only small appearances, helped to buoy him along the way: Liv Tyler, John Ortiz, Donald Sutherland, Natasha Lyonne, Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones. The flow is almost episodic, it’s broken into pieces, but in a good way, with a score that’s less about music and more about sound, all the technical details combining with gorgeous cinematography to create something both beautiful and unknowable, like a poem you can’t quite grasp completely but know you love anyway. This film demands to be rewatched as soon as it is watched, promising to reveal even more insight the second time around, if you can stand the pressure once more; I know I’ll be giving it another go, and I feel confident that its mix of high drama, space action, and artistic fortitude will wow me once again.
My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆