In an early sequence in writer-director James Gray’s Ad Astra, a routine trip across the moon turns into a dangerous dune buggy race as space pirates converge on our heroes and begin firing laser pistols. The bad guys and the good guys all wearing the same spacesuits with reflective gold visors, so we can’t tell who’s who during the action, but it’s exciting nonetheless.
A few scenes later, a spacecraft delivering Brad Pitt’s astronaut to Mars makes a stop to respond to a distress signal, only to find… well, something terrifying but also strangely terrestrial. It’s a sequence that draws both gasps and laughs, and makes enough sense in the world of the movie and the reality that we might project upon us, but still comes as a total shock.
These scenes serve as a nice metaphor for both the themes of Ad Astra, and the experience of watching the movie itself. Both the characters the audience are in search of thrilling otherworldly unknowns… but repeatedly brought back to the realities that exist within our own planet and its people.
Ad Astra’s opening sequence, too, provides a nice visual representation of this theme. As Captain Roy McBride (Pitt) does some work on the exterior of the Space Needle, a giant communications tower that juts out from Iowa into outer space, a power surge causes some violent explosions and McBride is sent tumbling toward Earth.
Ad Astra is set some undefined years into the future, but frequently reminds us of present-day realities and the limits of modern technologies – – and mindsets. It imagines a universe where mankind’s foray onto the moon has become a new Wild West frontier complete with space pirates and laser pistols… but also one where the lunar travel hub resembles New York’s JFK Airport, complete with an Applebee’s and Hudson News.
That sounds like a Demolition Man-esque gag, but Ad Astra is a deadly serious affair. After McBride’s tumble to the Earth (a parachute, thankfully, broke his fall) military higher-ups inform him of the cause of the power surge, which wasn’t an isolated incident but a recurring problem resulting in thousands of deaths: mysterious energy signals coming from Neptune and directed at Earth.
But here’s the real reveal: military brass think the signals are coming from McBride’s father, played in video recordings by Tommy Lee Jones, a NASA hero who decades ago went to Neptune in search of life on other planets and was never heard from again.
McBride’s mission, if he chooses to accept it, is to travel to Mars to send his father personal messages in the hopes of truly reaching him. Why can’t he send the messages from Earth? You tell me. Why not travel to Neptune to confront him… why no search & rescue for the past 16 years? Again, go figure. There’s some talk of the journey being too difficult, but it’s no trouble in the film’s third act.
Ad Adstra’s storyline, filled with these kinds of leaps and holes, never really engaged me. The film’s self-serious tone and ruminations on isolation and loneliness, padded out with the usual (absent) father & son stuff and parallels between Roy’s more current relationship with an ex-wife briefly played by Liv Tyler, don’t exactly live up to Tarkovsky’s Solaris despite Pitt’s wall-to-wall narration.
But the world Ad Astra creates is truly fantastic, and enough, I think, to cut the story some slack. Writer-director James Gray didn’t leave New York City during his first five features, but he left for the jungles of South America in the excellent The Lost City of Z and has taken off across the solar system here in a film that truly lights up our imagination… before thrusting us back to Earth.
On screen for nearly the entire movie, Pitt peerlessly carries the film on his shoulders with a character that acts as both the primary story thrust as well as its emotional core. Gray has long been known as an actor’s director, and gives his cast a lot of room to breathe here; in much smaller roles, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, and Loren Dean are able to also deliver some memorable characterizations.
In its use of consistently real-feeling technologies, Ad Astra creates a believable galactic world that mimics the ones glimpsed in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and the more recent Gravity. It combines this with an imaginative Roger Corman sense of sci-fi thrills that, cannily, never dips into Alien territory but reminds us that the truly fantastic originates on Earth.