To the stars. That is the given translation of the phrase “Ad Astra“, from which the movie takes it’s name. It’s an appropriate title for a film so committed to its journey through the stars, and to its journey into Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt’s character) inner psyche (and by extension the inner psyche of mankind itself). I knew essentially nothing going into this, and what I ended up getting was a surprisingly poignant look at mankind’s search for purpose, and how we attempt to use space to reflect on and pursue this goal. As someone who loves space and space travel, I’m obviously more inclined to look positively on a movie that both reflects on the near future of space travel, and on how it will (or won’t) affect us as a species. Even putting that aside, Ad Astra is an absolute gem, a clear passion project for everyone involved that comes out in full force through the well-written script, perfect pacing, and the haunting soundtrack by Max Richter. More than all of that though, it does one of the best things that I think any movie can really do: use a larger theme to explore very personal and very down-to-earth issues. It’s simple to do in concept, but difficult to pull off well. Most films get bogged down in the base plot that they fail to establish a greater purpose or deeper meaning behind the narrative, and while that’s totally fine for a lot of different genres, I think that films like Ad Astra could in the future look to it as a source of inspiration and an example of how to do these things correctly.
That’s not to say however, that the plot of Ad Astra isn’t important or good. In fact, towards the beginning, I was wondering why this is such a small movie, why it isn’t being marketed towards a larger audience. It kicks off with a great action sequence, and throughout the movie they continue. Within 5 minutes we see Roy plummeting through the atmosphere as explosions rock an enormous structure around him, really gets the adrenaline pumping and gets the audience excited for what else is to come. Placed evenly through the rest of the movie, we get lunar rover chases on the moon, knife fights in a space shuttle, and in one of the movie’s best sequences, Roy throwing himself into the rings of Neptune to escape a craft primed for nuclear detonation. While not quite Interstellar in terms of big blockbuster appeal, Ad Astra is obviously concerned with constructing an entertaining movie that takes advantage of it’s near-future setting, and doesn’t entirely lose itself in introspection or pretentious ramblings. It doesn’t think that it’s too good for us, doesn’t think that it’s too smart for a few well-placed explosions, and that is one of it’s key strengths. Rather than trying to be 2001 as so many other movies since it’s release have attempted, Ad Astra plays to its strengths, while also not being too afraid to venture into unknown territory in terms of its underlying message and narrative.
It is this underlying narrative, one hinted at underneath the surface, that truly elevates Ad Astra from being simply an entertaining space flick, to being a worthy exploration of what drives our desires for the discovery of intelligent life, and ultimately, for the discovery of purpose. The Lima Project, which Roy’s father was a part of, was meant to be an outpost that would discover intelligent life, free from the Sun’s magnetic interference. When we meet him face-to-face later in the movie, his father speaks of the fact that the only thing he has ever cared about is this search for intelligent life. It has been the only thing that drives him, the only thing he has loved, the only place he has found his purpose. When asked to abandon his family in pursuit of this goal, he didn’t even need to think about it, he accepted without hesitation. Yet when Roy finds him, decades into this project, his goal remains out of reach. He hasn’t found intelligent life, not even a hint. He has sacrificed everything, including his family and the many lives of the other, now dead, members of the Lima Project, and in his mind it has all been for nothing. Roy however, having traveled so far to see his father and to stop the anti-matter explosion that threatens all life on Earth, sees a different story. He sees the limitless research performed on hundreds of star systems that the Lima Project was able to achieve, he sees how valuable it could be to humanity, and saves it to bring back to Earth. These two perspectives represent the opposing philosophical views that the film pits against each other. Roy’s father, when confronted with the idea that we truly are alone in the universe, promptly shoots himself off into space, committing suicide. He sought purpose in the universe, and when the universe had none to offer him, he had nothing left. Roy was also robbed of his purpose, when his father committed suicide. He traveled across the solar system to rescue him, and then watched the man end his own life. He briefly wonders whether it’s even worth it to go back home, whether he should just stay here and die with his father. He resolves himself however, differing from his father, and in an exciting sequence, heads back to Earth.
The two viewpoints here are ones that people have discussed for ages, and are frequently reflected in nihilism and absurdism: does the universe have any inherent meaning or purpose for us, and if not, what do we do? Roy’s father is forced to acknowledge that the externally defined purpose he has been seeking does not exist, and that confrontation is so great that it absolutely destroys his will to live. Roy is also forced to confront the fact that his externally defined purpose is gone, as his father kills himself, robbing Roy of the satisfaction of fully succeeding on his mission. He however, acts differently in the face of this existential crisis, and instead chooses to create new purpose, defined by himself. He gathers the planetary data created by the Lima Project and successfully destroys the anti-matter reactor that is threatening Earth, and heads back home to face the rest of his life. External vs internal purpose is the key conflict that occurs at the end of the movie, and judging from the outcome of that conflict, I think that I can safely say that James Gray, the director, sees the internally defined purpose as the greater one. Roy is the survivor here, when faced with the same revelations that his father had. He returns to the real world, he returns to life, despite the reason for his living being destroyed multiple ways in front of his eyes. None of this is spelled out explicitly which is to the film’s credit, as for a good part of the movie it teeters on the edge of being pretentious, but underneath the surface, these ideas are here for those who are interested. I think that it does a fantastic job at presenting them without being too obviously biased in one way or the other, though obviously Gray thinks that Roy’s way of thinking, while potentially destructive as we see in multiple ways in the film, is the correct one.
Briefly I also want to praise Ad Astra exactly for those moments where it teeters on the edge of pretentiousness. While a bit too much for some, I did genuinely enjoy Brad Pitt’s introspective narration, especially the moments where he is on his solitary 80 day journey from Mars to Neptune and wrestles with having to truly be alone for that entire time. There are some great visual effects that help hammer it home, and the weight that he lends to the narration gives it credence that perhaps a lesser actor wouldn’t have been able to accomplish. These are the moments where Ad Astra allows Roy to muse a bit on some of the film’s deeper themes. Perhaps in the hands of a master filmmaker even the narration wouldn’t be necessary, but to expect every movie to be a masterpiece is unrealistic, and even some of the best movies out there rely on a narrator to get their point across.
All in all, Ad Astra is extremely solid as a movie, perhaps falling short of true greatness in a few ways, but in other ways wildly succeeding in what it sets out to do. It is beautiful visually, well-paced, exciting, and well-written. As I said at the beginning, it isn’t a top-tier blockbuster that has wide-spread appeal, but it is a fantastic space film, starring multiple great actors, with some serious thought put behind it. I’d recommend seeing it in theaters, just so that the full impact of the awe-inspiring space shots, and of Max Richter’s haunting score, can be experienced in full.