Review: ‘Ad Astra’ Shoots for the Stars But Doesn’t Quite Land
WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW!
Ad Astra tells the story of Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt) an astronaut on the search for his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones). In this version of Earth’s future, the planet is being hit by catastrophically huge pulses of electromagnetic radiation that are coming from somewhere in outer space. Space Command (the branch of the US military that controls the space program) believes that McBride’s long assumed dead, scientist father (15-20 years ago his ship was on a mission to neptune to search for extraterrestrial life and disappeared) is actually alive and is the one responsible for the EMP shockwaves that are hitting earth. They task McBride with going to Mars on a secret mission to send a radio transmission to his father, hoping that he will respond and they will then be able to track his location and stop him.
McBride agrees to the mission, and undergoing constant monitoring and psych evaluations, heads to the moon to meet the transport ship that will take him to Mars. Unfortunately the Moon is currently under several territorial disputes and on their way to the secret moon base they are beset by moon pirates. McBride and his advisor Colonel Pruitt (played by Donald Sutherland are the only survivors.) However, Pruitt begins to have heart problems once on the base, and shoves a secret communication into McBride’s hands before being carted off for a health evaluation. The communication reveals that McBride’s father is alive, he’s gone rogue, and Space Command’s mission is not just to track him down, but to kill him and destroy his vessel. Grappling with this news, McBride heads to Mars. Once there, he meets Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) the Governor of Mars, who escorts him to the sound booth to record his transmissions. His first few recordings receive no response. But after an emotional break, he records a more personal plea to his dad. This elicits a responding transmission from his father, but also gets him booted from the mission. Later, Lantos meets him in his “comfort room” and tells him that her parents were also on the Neptune mission with his father, and that the crew tried to mutiny when his father refused to let them go home and so he killed them all. Lantos wants to help McBride get to his father and shows him a way to sneak aboard the ship headed to Neptune.
Once on board, McBride is forced to kill the entire crew of the ship, and spends the long trip to Neptune entirely alone. Once there, he makes his way onto his father’s space station. He floats through the corpses of his father’s crew until he finds the man himself. In a threadbare sweater, huddled at the top of his observatory, Clifford McBride pours over his notes and calls out to his son. After a brutal back and forth, Cliff agrees to leave the station so that it, along with its anti-matter malfunction that is the root of Earth’s current problems, can be destroyed. However, once outside the station, Cliff can’t accept defeat or face returning to Earth as a failure and commits suicide by pushing himself out into the vastness of space. McBride must, once again, make his way back to Earth (this time with his father’s data), entirely alone.
There are three main themes running through Ad Astra. The most obvious, of course, centers around McBride’s emotional evolution and his relationship to his father. He starts the film as a model soldier. He’s stoic. He brags during his psych evaluations about his ability to compartmentalize. And he’s essentially emotionless as he dictates. Even when he does describe his feelings, he does so in a monotonous drone. But, the further he gets on his journey, and the more he learns about his dad, the harder it is for him to compartmentalize. All of the emotions that he has shunted aside rise to the surface. Which ultimately, is what allows him to record a message that his dad will respond to. However, it also results in him being taken off the mission because Space Command views him as emotionally unstable and unable to prioritize. (And because they can no longer control him.)
The film is a critique of this kind of stoicism, especially as it concerns gender roles and traditional displays of masculinity. McBride’s journey is largely about him reconnecting to the emotions that he has shoved down his entire life. He has spent his career trying to become the model soldier, the lone ranger, essentially, his father. The kind of man who places duty and work above everything else. Mission over family. McBride realizes over the course of the film that this worldview is inherently corrupt and unhealthy, and that human connection (to others and the world around you) is what actually matters.
Closely connected to this critique of toxic masculinity is an examination of his “daddy issues.” Because Cliff abandoned his family when Roy was young, Roy has spent his entire life trying to become his father, specifically the aspects of his father that will keep him from actually having to deal with his feelings of abandonment and loss. He is driven to first become his father, but then to find him and rescue him. However, when he finally does find him, he is faced with the harsh truth (from his father’s own lips) of what prioritizing mission over life and family actually is. His father is a broken mess, living alone amongst the corpses of his crew. Later, McBride must make the choice to let his father, as an ideal, as a man, and as part of himself, die in order to save himself.
Underneath these cultural critiques lies a larger philosophical theme. Essentially this idea of choosing to connect or to isolate, and how we cope with these choices, also acts as a metaphor for spirituality and religion. On the one hand you have Cliff McBride, a man so driven by his belief that there is someone or something else (aka “God”) out there, that he abandons his family in pursuit of it. When he is faced with the truth that maybe there isn’t, he can’t handle this idea of “being alone” (even though he has been alone for this entire pursuit) and kills himself. On the other, you have his son Roy. Roy has spent most of his life feeling abandoned already, but also following in his father’s footsteps. He pushes his ex-wife away, and literally kills several people in order to complete this solo mission to find his father (his own version of “God the Father” you might argue). However, he realizes during his journey into the “Heart of Space Darkness” (har har) that this is unhealthy and he feels the pull to emotionally connect with those around him. And so when he is confronted with the knowledge that humans are alone in the universe, instead of feeling alone, he is comforted because he knows that we still have each other. (This is one of the core tenets of atheism, that because there is no higher power, it matters even more how we treat one another – because we are all we have.) The film ends with him reconnecting with his ex-wife and attempting to rekindle what he originally threw away.
Overall, The cinematography is stunning. The use of color and scale, particularly on Mars and in deep space are gorgeous, along with the sweeping shots of the enormous empty vastness of space to the tight and cramped human quarters pay a decent homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. You really feel the strangeness of existing in both a huge void but also a claustrophobic unit simultaneously.
Unfortunately, even though it was beautiful to watch and dealt with a lot of nuanced and complicated themes on an intellectual level, I felt that the emotional core of the film was missing. The acting is very well done, but it’s hard to create an emotional connection to a character (Roy McBride) that is so completely closed off. I appreciated the attempt to grapple with concepts like stoicism, but even when he does eventually break open, it felt like something was missing. I think that part of that has to do with the lack of world building outside of the McBride character. The film presents itself as a sweeping epic – the audience is transported from Earth to the Moon, to Mars, to Neptune, and yet the film still feels very insular and small. Because the film follows McBride so tightly, and doesn’t flesh out any of the worlds (or other characters for that matter) so you lose a sense of the scope.
We hear about the more fascist aspects of Space Command, and the war on the Moon, but we don’t get to actually see it (apart from the Mad Max style Rover battle). And because we don’t know enough about the world, we don’t get to know enough about McBride. Even the side characters are only in the film long enough to help McBride with one thing and then they are gone. Liv Tyler plays McBride’s mostly silent wife via flashbacks. The incredible Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga serve their brief purposes and then are dispensed with. In one particularly shocking scene, you learn there are rabid space chimps that have killed an ENTIRE crew, but you only meet them long enough for them to kill the captain that accompanied McBride, then they’re gone and done. No explanation as to why they’re there, or if they are like that because they were affected by the EMP waves. Nothing. There is zero attempt at backstory for any of the characters you meet, even with McBride you only get brief flashbacks to his wife or his dad leaving, but again those are all mostly silent. As a result, it feels like we only got two thirds of a story. There are just too many loose ends and not enough rules established. (Like, how do those guns during the Mad Max Moon scene even work in zero to no gravity?)
Funnily enough, this insular manner of storytelling reminded me a lot of All That Jazz. Bob Fosse’s epic, and extremely narcissistic, autobiographical opus. In All That Jazz, all of the characters only exist in the story in terms of how they relate to Joe Gideon (the Fosse character) directly. There is no scene that doesn’t have him in it. And once a character has served their purpose, they are abruptly gone. Ad Astra functions essentially the same way, except without the implicit understanding of the audience that you are watching a man tell his own, already mostly public, life story. It feels supremely ironic to use such a narcissistic mode of storytelling (only showing characters in how they directly relate to the lead) to tell a story that wants to send the message: connect and try to understand your fellow human beings. Which is why, I think, Ad Astra is missing that key component for me. In spite of its many positives – the acting, the big ideas, the cinematography, it still left me feeling as flat and empty as the void of space in which Brad Pitt floats.