Like a rocket inching its way across the vacuum of space, for stretches of time, Ad Astra is stagnant and lugubrious, its lumbering and turgid runtime being both a test of patience and harbinger of despair because more interesting things don’t seem to be on the horizon. It is certainly beautifully shot (you’ll want to immediately stargaze by the time the credits roll) but thankfully, director James Gray did not seek out merely to entertain, and his work here revels in the journey of thematic exploration rather than trying to accelerate to a destination for the narrative. Truly, Ad Astra is more meditation than movie and its dialogue, more poetry than prose. Gray uses the environment of space in all of its uncertainties, dangers and wonders as a springboard to launch into a larger analysis on the human psyche, asking questions of whether meaning is found outside or inside of oneself while highlighting the dangers of compartmentalizing one’s emotions. At once relevant and prophetic, his film is an emotionally resonant and introspective study of the examined human life that isn’t afraid to ask more questions than give answers.
Set in the ominous “near future” and “in a time of hope and progress, while Ad Astra’s world is not quite as technologically advanced as other sci-fi films, it is in this construction of acute normality that Gray layers salient commentary. He knows that the generation watching has the worlds of Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and the like in their mental orbit and he opts for something more down-to-Earth. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) accepts a mission to go to Neptune in order to locate his missing father H. Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who is suspected to be the progenitor of dangerous power surges that could threaten all life on Earth. For the first part of his journey, Roy takes a commercial flight to the moon (big airlines like Norwegian and Virgin Atlantic have nicely adjusted to the demand for space travel) and is horrified to see how humans have crafted the moon in their own image, making it a carbon copy of Earth. “We are world-eaters” he mutters in a voice-over, while the camera pans to a shot of people dining at the newly installed Applebee’s and Subway. Gray presents a future that is familiar to audiences but that is precisely why it is so terrifying; rather than thinking of new ways of living, humans only rinse and repeat their destructive tendencies. Elsewhere on the moon, pirates run about claiming any spot of uncharted territory as their own in a sort of galactic recapitulation of Manifest Destiny. It is haunting to see this primordial greed set against this majestic lunar backdrop and Gray frequently mixes awe and disgust in the same scenes.
Audiences are first and foremost supposed to relate with Roy himself, but rather than frame Roy as likable, Pitt does a brilliant job of presenting the major with weaknesses you can empathize with and vices you feel obligated to chastise. The relationality comes not from the personality traits but the tumultuous journey of self-discovery he undergoes. For Roy, he views space in its voidless, shapeless form, as his way of escape from all he experiences on Earth. His determination for solitude manifests in a veil of dutiful service, whether he is doing his psychological evaluation despite its repetitiveness or dispatching pirates a lá Mad Max: Fury Road or Fast and the Furious style. He is distant from his friends and family, particularly his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) who he sees as a distraction from him achieving his own potential. Space is a frontier of hidden discovery and limitless possibilities and Roy’s well-deserved happily ever after.
Yet once Roy finally gets on his coveted rocket and blasts off to Neptune, he finds that his problems have not disappeared but have instead come back in full force. The pain of having to go through his adult life without a father figure resurfaces once he comes to grips with the fact that maybe his father had the chance to leave the space station on Neptune but refused to. As he goes to various checkpoints before finally landing on Neptune, he likewise realizes that he has the same detrimental and power-hungry vices his dad displayed with his own crew members. Ironically, as Roy moves farther and farther away from Earth (i.e. the source of all his anxiety) he finds he comes to grips with his own humanity and flaws. He discovers himself, more than he would like, and all the emotions that he has kept bottled up come out in torrents. Gray uses these scenes of waiting (it takes seventy-nine days to get to Neptune; the film mercifully bridges that time) to ruminate on what humans are supposed to do when we come to the end of ourselves. Do we keep running away in denial or do we stand to make a change?
While Gray stops short of giving definitive responses to the inquiries he raises, the picture of Roy at the end of the film perhaps best describe the film’s grandeur. Once Roy has his Damascus Road encounter, he returns to rectify the mistakes he made; in the beginning of the film, Roy recites that he is “mission ready” and that he is “focused on the essential to the exclusion of all else.” The camera then pans to Roy in the kitchen with his wife standing by the doorway but the focus is on Roy while she and everything else is the scene is blurred, highlighting her unessentiality. After Roy’s revelation and his return to Earth, he recites the same creed but this time with Eve in focus. It is a clever visual cue to signal Roy’s inner transformation. So while Ad Astra does not reinvent the rocket engine when it comes to space exploration in cinema, it deserves encomium for its commentary in that it challenges individuals not only to seek revelation for themselves but to then use that self-awareness to better their communities.
Zachary Lee is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.