Arts and Entertainment

Ad Astra: A Philosophical Space Sleeper Hit

Arts & Entertainment editor Jacqueline Thom examines the elements that make “Ad Astra” a great work of cinema.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In a long string of space movies, “Ad Astra” is by far the most underwhelming. It’s the second movie starring Brad Pitt this year, just three months since the release of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019). Pitt is Roy McBride, a rigid astronaut who presents like a soldier and sets out on a personal vendetta to find his father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). The junior McBride lives under the shadow of his deceased father, who is deemed a hero for his advances in space travel, but Roy seems neither prideful nor angered by this. It’s a trait that he seems to carry with him throughout the movie. There are only a few sparse moments when McBride truly expresses himself and even when he does, you’re left questioning the truth of the few screams that McBride allows himself to emit.

It’s clear that director James Gray wrote the entirety of this film with Pitt in mind. The two have been friends for two decades and wanted a better role for Pitt where he was no longer the gel-haired, good-looking, talkative, sometimes gum-chewing, often gun-wielding type. And it’s true that Pitt is better off when he’s brooding. His legacy has far preceded him, always giving onlookers the impression that Pitt is a man of mythical ability even though he’s been starring in fewer movies and prefers to keep to himself. That’s exactly why I’m not immediately denouncing this movie as disappointing.

The film has its faults, whether it be in its obsession with lens flares and Pitt’s dusty blue eyes, or its startling failure to reference “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) but there’s a lot to be commended. “Ad Astra” focuses on McBride’s stoicism and his refusal to become attached for fear of losing his head. Roy McBride represents logic and serves as a vessel for viewers’ own dissatisfaction with the trivialities of human emotion. At one point, McBride’s military superior quips, “Is it true that your heart rate has never gone above 80?” McBride smoothly replies, “Not yet, sir.” It’s this coolness, this habitual refusal to quaver, even later in times of near-death, that is so enticing. How could a man of McBride’s status, so marked with achievement, remain so detached? Even when he is alert, McBride is distant. His resting heart rate is 47, and in all his psychological examinations, he reports with a near monotone on his readiness for work, how he slept, how he feels. All of it seems like some dream where the colors are vivid and echoing music interrupts the oblivion of space.

In bits and pieces, we find out that McBride has distanced himself from his wife in an effort to perform better at his job as an astronaut. McBride’s father is hailed as a hero, but Roy loathes him for his cruelty in leaving mother and son behind to do exactly what Roy does himself: remove himself from all emotional attachments in the pursuit of the advancement of humanity. When Roy finds out the truth—that his father killed his crew members to prevent them from cutting a fruitless mission short—the younger McBride finally breaks from his neutrality. He quickly falls into what could be called disrepair for someone as machine-like as he is. In the vivid reds and greens that characterize the film, McBride collapses into himself. Somehow he is angry for not believing the cruelty he saw in his father. What he learns is also a long-coming confirmation that father and son are indeed of the same ilk, no matter how steadfast in his refusal Roy is. Unfortunately, it ends too soon, with our protagonist abruptly returning to his reserved ways once he decides to set out to retrieve his father.

In this world so far removed from the confines of Earth, where traveling to Mars is trivial, and Saturn even less so, we are alone. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s last work of art, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Ad Astra” asks us to confront what it means to be human. Who are we without emotion and connection? How far can we go before enough is enough? Does trying to advance the human race justify hurting those closest to us? At first, these questions aren’t obvious, and neither are their answers. Gray instead lets the action manifest through the inner turmoil of his character. In the few moments when McBride loses his stability and acts close to maniacal while on the journey to find his father, viewers are confronted with images of a person in extreme pain. McBride talks to himself, his eyes flicker every which way in anguish, he floats corpse-like in the wide maw of his spacecraft, contemplating how he’s gotten to this point. The juxtaposition of such images makes this seem like some terrible reaction of the brain to a neglectful owner. McBride has gone so far into the depths of loneliness and dissatisfaction to reach perfect neutrality, but the answer he finds is that it is impossible to remain unseeing when someone dies, to be calm when you are left to fend for yourself, to refuse oneself the innate need for human connection. It is because of these questions that makes Gray successful in creating a big-budget film that trades the typical action-packed sequences for an examination of emotions and relationships.

Despite this, some bits of the film are odd when given further consideration. Without Gray’s philosophical ruminations and Pitt’s excellence in being mysterious, it’s questionable whether “Ad Astra” would be anything more than a visually-pleasing look at the possibilities of space travel. Gray unrealistically warps the laws of gravity to his liking. Religion is referenced twice in the film though it doesn’t play a larger role. McBride is so sturdy in his coolness that when he does break into sweating and babbling, it’s hard to believe it’s more than a dream sequence that lasts way too short. The movie feels long but by the time it ends, it’s not long enough.

It’s surprising how well Gray brings his ideas onto the screen, though. He and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema [Dunkirk (2017), Interstellar (2014), Her (2014)] utilize a series of primary colors, close-ups of Pitt, and spiraling shots of space to convey McBride’s unsaid contemplations and his realizations of life. Narration is present, much more at the beginning of the film than the end, and the sparingness of it eases viewers into the life of Roy McBride, who is best summarized by his half-order, half-plea, “Please don’t touch me.” Like with many movies that try to be new and experimental, this is one that requires thought beyond just a simple watch. Unlike other sci-fi space films like “Gravity” (2013) and “Interstellar,” there’s less action and more observation involved. It’s not exactly something that can work for everyone, which might explain why two people kept alternately snoring during the movie.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like watching this film. It doesn’t qualify as either bad or good, and sometimes seems mediocre, other times eye-opening. What little action there is in the movie is muted, being almost unimportant when McBride brushes off another person’s death and escapes unscathed. Throughout, you can’t help but hear the sound of your own breathing as you wait, thinking but for what? It might just be wishful thinking that Gray has a reason for making this piece as quiet and composed as it is. The centerpiece is Nils Frahm’s “Says,” which acts as McBride’s theme, a quiet series of synthetic beats and disconnected piano that evolves into a roaring echo that surrounds the senses.

At the same time that this is a cruising, meditative piece, there is an element of nuanced storytelling involved that brings to mind the connections between father and child. It’s not an obvious theme, but maybe viewers are okay with just another Brad Pitt film that’s meant to give us a look into the actor’s personality. “Ad Astra” is not at all satisfying when watching it, but becomes more so with time and contemplation. Revel in its blaring colors and attention to detail, because that’s the most excitement you’re going to get besides the camera’s infatuation with Pitt’s face.