An emotionally wrought exploration of existentialism asking whether our very human perspective is enough, a father-son story that questions the impact of legacy and how the imprint of an absent father plays into one’s dated sense of masculine identity. Ad Astra is a movie with a lot on its mind, and little room for subtlety. Feeling like a composition of its inspirations without transcending them to become its own idea of a movie, asking questions that it has no problem answering, it is turgidly paced to provide this aura of importance through contemplation and reflection with a Malickian voiceover that feels displaced over images that lack poeticism.
A movie about many complicated ideas that it doesn’t trust the audience enough to figure out, so it uses voice-over to allow us room to reflect on the same questions that Brad Pitt is contemplating in the vastness of space. When Terrence Malick uses voice over, it feels like he is melding his images with his words to create a new form of poetry. When James Gray does it, it’s to reinforce ideas that the movie already conveyed through its images, and what gets lost in these ruminations on existence is the poignancy that these questions should bring with them.
Ad Astra opens up in the near future, with an immaculately staged action sequence as an electrical surge hits a space station that extends from the Earth out into space. As Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is trying to fix what is happening, he falls, and we shift back and forth from his perspective as he’s falling to the more objective perspective as he is a small man in an orange spacesuit tumbling down to the blue marble. It is a great introduction to a character whose heartbeat never goes beyond 80, until he’s forced to confront his own emotions, at that point, all bets are off.
Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones), took off on a space mission to look for extraterrestrial life when Roy was a teenager, and never returned, thought to be dead. That is until electrical surges caused by anti-matter material that was present on father’s ship starts happening, so Roy is recruited to venture out to Mars, and then possibly Neptune where his father’s ship is presumed to be, in order to confront his father and stop these surges before it’s too late.
What I love about the film is its languid pace that didn’t really care about the ticking clock. While Earth is in danger, this is a film that cares more about the inner struggle of a human being as he ventures into space, with the backdrop of these surges acting as a catalyst for the story, but it doesn’t impede on the ideas that director James Gray wants to convey. Gray is more interested in confronting his characters with themselves and providing us with a window into the head of Roy McBride, and the burden that this mission soon takes on. The crucible that Roy fights through to come out the other side and look at his image reflected back at himself and understand who he is a little clearer than he did before.
Roy has to confront his emotions and face the truth about why he suppresses them in order to understand the definition that our emotional maturity takes on and how we are defined by what we feel, stripping down the human experience to its most vulnerable position before rediscovering our placement underneath the stars. A deeply felt human idea of self is what underlines this adventure story, as James Gray uses the expanse of the galaxy to expound on the nature of man, and our need to feel bigger than ourselves, and maybe our purpose is to just experience life as we are. James Gray uses space exploration to meditate on the inner workings of the human heart.
Such execution should be applauded for its rarity. The problem is, however, that Ad Astra is an emotionally mature film that doesn’t trust us enough to understand its own intelligence. So it finds the need to explain Roy to us through voice-over, turning a visually splendid science fiction spectacle into a not-so-poetic Apocalypse Now as done by an imitation Terrence Malick, missing that sense of abstract adventure that provides the backbone for those styles of films.
Ad Astra is a straight forward space movie that deals with heavy themes, but the images themselves are pretty straight forward and formally composed, while Apocalypse Now decomposes and recomposes itself as it moves along, detailing the descent into hell as we begin to lose our collective minds along with the characters in the movie. As Roy McBride moves through his mission in space to retrieve his father who might have gone rogue, the images don’t change their structure. They don’t change form into something that mirrors Roy’s emotional journey, so as the film delves deeper into the soul of our protagonist, the voice-over just makes it feel like we are watching Brad Pitt go to therapy, and instead of experiencing the catharsis of therapy myself, this film just left me feeling cold. However, all that pales in comparison to the ending. An ambitious space epic that explores the meaning of life, in so many words, ends on a cliché. It felt like a studio note, asking James Gray to dumb down his ambition in order to sell himself to the general audience, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
The final result is a conflicted viewing experience. On one hand, the quiet, meditative pace as we are allowed to reflect on the purpose we serve within the known cosmos feels almost revolutionary in this era of tentpole filmmaking where movies are more concerned with being distractions than being intelligent. Ad Astra is a change of pace, and I appreciate getting to sit in a theater and watch a man rediscover himself, and maybe by the end, I’ll learn something about myself along the way. Yet, at the same time, we are spoon-fed the film’s emotional themes reducing intricate subtleties into easily consumable hamfisted cues. Honestly, I’m fed up with the idea that movies are meant to be understood. Cinema allows us to explore our own interiority through exploring the perspective we bring to the movies we see, and there is this cerebral, subconscious level to cinema that resonates deeper than the objective meaning that the filmmaker intended. Ad Astra is so melancholic and self-aggrandizing in its presentation, that I wish it trusted me more with its confrontational ideas. Don’t tell me what to think. Just say what you have to say and allow me the freedom to think about it.