One of the oddball movies to see this year was for me Ad Astra. Before I saw it yesterday I knew very little about it. It appeared on my radar 2 years ago as some low-budget sci-fi flick, it just happen to star Brad Pitt, and Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland as well as Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler. Those five names made it obligatory to watch. If it was a bad movie I would write a review telling everybody just how much it crashed and burned. I might have even bought a T-shirt that says ‘I survived Ad Astra’. The only thing is, I don’t think I have ever seen a movie like Ad Astra before. And boy was it a good movie. For me it was the purest Sci-Fi movie since Blade Runner 2049.
So what is Ad Astra all about? Well, it is set in a future about 50 years from now. Humanity has explored the inner solar system. Colonization also comes with a great deal of violence. Generally the problems of our present are magnified by the rush to occupy land on the Moon and on Mars. The movie is about Roy McBride, an astronaut, one of many in the now very large astronaut corps. Roy has never recovered emotionally from the disappearance of his father who was part of the Lima Project. It’s aim was to set up a research station around Neptune to listen to interstellar communication and potentially discover intelligent life.
Roy is now in mid-forties and continues to be emotionally reclusive. He does his job, ensures he passes his psychological tests and then does his job once again. This emotional distance has ruined his marriage to his wife Eve. The organization he works for values his hardened persona, apparently oblivious to its underlying nature. After a severe electromagnetic wave hits the earth Roy is sent on a mission to Mars. Apparently there is reason to believe Roy’s father is still alive around Neptune and he is considered responsible for the wave. There is hope Roy may be able to talk to his father directly from the transmitter on Mars. Roy is keen to go on the mission and finally obtain closure with his emotional turmoil.
First man? Or Solaris? 2010 perhaps? Or something new!
Ten minutes into the movie it was still hard to judge what kind of film it was going to be. The look and feel is reminiscent of First Man starring Ryan Gosling. I also got the Solaris vibe with the little seen but omnipresence of the government. But ultimately I settled upon seeing similarities too the 1984 adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact. That said, Ad Astra felt new, it continuously subverts expectations.
Characters that Roy meets along his journey to Neptune are only transitive. They are introduced as main characters creating a feeling with the viewer we will see them until the end. The first such character is Colonel Pruitt – played by Donald Sutherland. Yet, he can only guide Roy as far as the moon. Then there is the crew of the Cepheus who take a steady toll.
To Mars and Neptune
Finally before the final act, the journey to Neptune, Roy stops on Mars. Here he meets the mysterious Helen Lantos (played by Ruth Negga). For a while it feels like she is a character who has something important to tell to Roy, to give him an epiphany before his confrontation with his father. Either that or become his lover. But Ad Astra takes a different turn. While Helen helps Roy start his journey to Neptune she also tells how his father killed her parents when they mutinied during the Lima Project.
All the while the viewer is confronted with the mystery of what is going on at Neptune. Why has Roy’s father sent deadly electromagnetic pulses to the inner solar system? Could he be in contact with aliens, as part of some plot? Or has he just gone mad. This question lingers on as you watch Roy makes his journey, and even starts to hallucinate between Mars and Neptune as he passes the gas giants. Yet the viewer also has to deal with the lingering feeling none of this matters. This story about Roy as he considers the relationship with his father and what it has meant for himself.
Once at the Lima Project station in orbit around Neptune Roy and the viewer finds the answers. The station became damaged during a more recent mutiny that left Roy’s father the only survivor. Unable to fix the damaged array that is sending deadly pulses and unwilling to destroy his life’s work Roy’s father did nothing.
Ad Astra Per Aspera
After 30 years the bond between father and son has been weakened with Roy’s father saying there never was really much of a bond. Yet, Roy persists and manages to persuade his father to abandon the station as Roy sets a nuclear bomb.
Here the story subverts expectation one last time. Roy’s father loosens his tether that holds them together as they drift to the Cepheus to escape. Roy’s father simply could not give up his quest to find aliens. His drive on this was all consuming. He loosened the tether to get just a few more moments of flying around Neptune instead of having to admit to himself he failed. For the viewer this is last gut punch in a movie filled with them.
Yet the movie has a distinctly happy ending. Roy manages to make it back to Earth. He knows his relationship with his father meant he could never open up to anyone – even to his wife. The epiphany that Roy now finally feels brings true character change and allows him to live his life, with Eve.
Ad Astra may well be one of the best movies I have seen this year. As mentioned it continuously subverts expectations. The story is a great deal about loneliness and that what holds us back when we seek a remedy. Roy’s story has never been about space, or about the Moon, or Mars or Neptune. It has always been about Roy’s emotional turmoil he has suffered since his father left.
The story feels very personal, and I must thank Brad Pitt for his excellent portrayal of Roy. I would almost say it was not actual acting, but an understated performance of just being himself. There are many themes to Ad Astra I think are current. The constant psychological testing feels like the never ending need to rate. We rate customer service, food that is served, our hotel stay and practically everything on social media. When Roy’s emotional borders collapse on Mars before the final act he is immediately looked down by his never seen superiors. This stands in stark contrast to the motive of Roy on going to the Lima project in the first place, the hope to find his emotions again.
Ad Astra also sports wonderful cinematography. The Moon and Mars in particular rare depicted wonderfully – desolate places though they are. The backdrop enhances the story in an incalculable way. My hat goes off to director James Gray.