by Adam Gage
Less of an operatic, Sci-Fi, action filled exploration drama, Ad Astra is much more inclined to be a meditative treatise on the masculine tendency to be isolated from the world and loved ones, being restrained by an obsessive attitude to dedicated and ambitious work, all expressed through arresting, grand outer-space imagery. The plot and its accompanying visuals evoke obvious similarities to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now, and whilst it is just as and perhaps even more serious in tone than those two films, the ideas expressed are intentionally less subtle and much more sentimental, sometimes to a fault.
The story follows decorated and revered astronaut Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt), who has an immensely stoic attitude towards life and his work, famous for his pulse never breaching more than 80 BPM, even when under the most strenuous outer space tasks. This is demonstrated in the films opening sequence, in which McBride is working on the outside of a space antenna just above the earth’s atmosphere, and subsequently gets blown down to earth due to and explosive and mysterious power surge, yet despite this he never breaks his calm or competence. The surge, which affected all the Earth’s electrical power, is revealed to have originated from Neptune, where 30 years prior Roy’s father led an expedition to search for extra-terrestrial life. Due to his connection with the potential source, Roy is sent on a mission across space to try and establish communication with his possibly still living and dangerous father.
Despite the grand nature of the events, there is a far greater emphasis on character and mood, where the plot is unapologetically straight forward, lacking a tendency for shocking reveals or surprises. The film is completely chained to Roy and his introspection, with an accompanying broody voice over. Which while working in terms of adding to the contemplative atmosphere of a scene, can sometimes feel slapped on and frustratingly redundant, taking away from what is already expressed by the suggestive images. However, Pitt’s performance alleviates this issue, which while almost too watery eyed is among his best in terms of conveying subtle expression through his facial manners and subdued yet pained speech.
Far and away the best aspect of the film is its precise and vitalized direction, with despite some eye rolling thematic tendencies, is never boring and perfectly paced. The feeling for its imagery can extend into being sublime, with beyond beautiful compositions and texture that are some of the best contributions to the genre. Another example is the execution of its main action set pieces, which – if described – sound as though they belong in a completely different and more pulpy film: with a prime instance of this being a chase with buggies on the moon, with space pirates. This frantic sequence is treated deadly serious, which for some may make it laughable, but it works as the film has already established certain politics, and it resonates from a basic visceral level along with expressing the characters psyche (while also just being beautifully photographed).
Despite the brilliance of the film’s direction, its thematic undercurrent is what can cause a lack of resonance with what’s being displayed on the screen. The ideas expressed are done so purposefully and with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and the ideas themselves are intended to have a simple poignancy which could be universal, but they can come off as trendy and borderline sappy, with the focus being on deconstructing stoic masculinity. Pitt himself has said this is what drew him to the film, to re-evaluate himself and his career, which is ironic since not two months before the release of this film, he played a character which glorifies very similar qualities in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
There is something to admire in what’s being communicated though, and something which does achieve a sense of catharsis, from being well built up to and having a resonance beyond the character’s arc. In which there can be a failure to appreciate what’s truly meaningful in life, and how that can be missed or knowingly neglected in favour of striving for something bold that can give the feeling that meaning will eventually be felt, but not seeing the people right in front of you that can truly fill the void.