Ad Astra: A Beautiful, Slow, and Strange Masterpiece

An intergalactic film that explores themes of the imminent future and the search for truth, Ad Astra is an engaging and visually spectacular movie standout.

Ad Astra is one of the most fascinating movies I’ve seen in a while. Directed by James Gray of The Lost City of Z, it’s a film I can safely say is one of my favorite movies of the year. It’s been getting a lot of mixed reviews though as critics and audiences seem to either love or hate this movie. It’s purposely methodical and slow which is bound to frustrate the average moviegoer, but also beautifully shot and extremely complex in its themes despite a simple narrative.

I have seen the movie twice now and both times were very different experiences for me. I was shocked the first time I saw it by its amazing cinematography and visual effects, but more invested in its narrative the second time. This is a very lonely and even at times depressing movie as Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt, searches for his father who is likely up to no good billions of miles away. This is a film that I feel deserves to be discussed in detail. In order to do so, I will need to discuss SPOILERS for the film for the rest of this article. My recommendation to you all is if you’re at least curious about it, try to see it once in the theater and give it a chance, but if you don’t like these types of slow space odyssey like films and were never interested in this film to begin with, you may not find much to win you over. With that being said, let’s discuss this movie in detail from the visual aspects to its themes and ideas.

Check out the trailer released by IMAX here:

One of its strongest themes is the effect space travel can have on a human being and how this can damage someone psychologically. *****SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE REST OF THE ARTICLE*****

The film starts off in the near future where mankind now has the resources to be able to dedicate more time to discovering space. Some countries, particularly the United States, now have stations set up on the moon and in Mars where research is conducted and where space travel commences. It is revealed that Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones, began a mission known as the Lima Project many years ago in an effort to discover intelligent alien life to hopefully help humans in the continued discovery of our universe. That mission had since seemingly ended but power surges are now being emitted from the capsule which is destroying bases in space and killing innocent civilians both on Earth and in space. One of these power surges directly affects Roy, Clifford’s son, who, while repairing a satellite in the sky, experiences one of these power surges which propels him off the structure towards Earth. He then is ordered on a mission to Mars to attempt to make communication with his father to see if they can grab his attention so they can track his location and hopefully figure out a way stop these surges.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is this film’s depiction of the future and the society that surrounds it. As Roy departs for his journey, he must first travel to the moon to reach the base and meet his team that will take him to Mars. They order Roy to travel “commercially”, which this film introduces as a concept, in order to keep a low profile. We also find once Roy has gotten to the moon that there seems to be a little society which has formed there as there is now an airport with restaurant locations like Applebee’s, Yoshinoya, and Subway. This film’s depiction of the future and settlement of intergalactic territories almost reminded me of Rick and Morty in its realism and attention to detail. It was interesting too to find that nations are still fighting over territory on the moon as a Virgin Atlantic PSA warns its passengers to stay in safe spaces as they could be caught in the middle of a war zone if they go outside the safe lines. I can’t help but wonder how many years it will be until humanity has colonized the moon and it becomes widely accepted for passengers to travel to the moon commercially.

One criticism many people had with this movie is that some scenes felt “pointless.”

A scene involving Roy traveling through a war zone in order to get to the military base and a scene in which Roy’s crew responds to a mayday call on the way to Mars some critics determined were exciting but ultimately pointless to the main story. I would argue that these scenes are important as they either develop the environment or the characters in question. The rover scene provides proof to the audience that the moon is essentially a huge war zone. The mayday call scene, however, involves Roy’s crew finding an abandoned craft in which a couple of space primates have broken loose and killed everyone on board. Roy and his crew are able to destroy the chimps but it still seems to have a negative effect on Roy. It is mentioned earlier in the film that Roy’s pulse is never above 80 bpm which means that his anxiety levels remain consistently low. He is forced to take seemingly daily psychological evaluations in order to ensure that it is safe for him to continue on the mission and it is events like this that test him as a competent astronaut. Some have criticized Roy’s character to be dull because Brad Pitt is forced to give an emotionless and calm performance, but it did not bother me as I acknowledge that Roy’s emotionless expressions make up his character. Other actors would have tried to go big in their performance, but Pitt always keeps his performance laid back and subdued which I think is extremely fitting for a character who is forced to remain calm in order to go deeper into space.

One of the most marketed scenes in the trailers that critics found exciting but pointless. See the clip here:

Once Roy gets to Mars he finds that his father is still in his capsule in Neptune, likely still searching for intelligent life. The people in charge of the base at Mars, Space Command, refuse to let Roy travel on the mission to Neptune. It isn’t until later when we find out that the reason is that Roy’s father actually murdered his crew after they hesitated to go beyond the solar system to keep finding alien life. Since it would ruin the reputation of Space Command given that they’ve been able to spread the narrative that his father was a hero for so long, they refuse to let him continue on this journey to find his father. He is able to stow away on the rocket to Mars, but he is forced to kill everyone on board as they try to attack him once he gets on. He must now travel from Mars to Neptune all by himself, a journey which theoretically would take him over 10 years. This is one of the issues I do have with the movie. Although we feel the effects time has on the character psychologically, it never really is shown physically. Roy’s hair never turns grey, his skin doesn’t begin to wrinkle, he looks as if he was the same age by the time he gets to Neptune and by the time he gets home (which again could span over 20 years).

Once Roy reaches Neptune he finds his father still alive as well as the malfunctioning antimatter causing the surges throughout the solar system. Clifford refuses to go home with his son and at this moment admits that he never cared about him or his well being and only really cares to successfully complete his mission. Even though Roy is able to get his father to leave the capsule with him so he can blow it up, Clifford refuses to go home with Roy and forces him to let go. Roy, likely acknowledging the hurt Clifford has caused him, unhooks him from the tether they both are connected to, ultimately killing his own father in the process. The audience at this point now knows that this is the most challenging moment Roy has ever faced as he’s forced to confront the harsh reality that his father is not who he thought he was and further act upon this realization. And even through this, Roy still doesn’t lose his temper or have a mental breakdown as an average audience member may expect him to. I originally did not like the ending of this movie as I thought it was a somewhat disappointing conclusion to a largely built-up story, but upon second viewing I found I liked the ending given that Roy was able to finally gain closure in his life and accept his father for who he truly is.

Ad Astra is the type of movie any serious lover of film needs to see at least once

Ad Astra is a movie I love to death and I think any fan of movies should check out as soon as they can. This is not your average movie-going experience and is definitely not something you watch on a date maybe for fun. James Gray has created a deep, complex, and lonely tale of a man who must accept the reality his father is not the man he thought he was through an interstellar journey. Many people are also going to call this a rip off of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I too noticed the similarity between the two movies. But what kept this movie consistently engaging for me though was the main character and the journey he took. Gray’s direction and the cinematography as done excellently by Hoyte Van Hoytema is just icing on the cake to this intergalactic masterpiece. See this on the biggest screen you can, and I hope you all enjoy!

Written by: Christian Scognamillo

Follow me on Letterboxd for more reviews at the link below:https://letterboxd.com/christianscogs/