How far would you go for closure? Would you drive across town? Would you book a cross-country flight? Would you pilot a spacecraft to the farthest reaches of the solar system?
Major Roy McBride had lost his father 16 years earlier – or so he believed. But when he learns his dad might still be alive, he begins a journey to reconnect. Since neither a car nor an airplane can reach Neptune, he chooses to travel by spacecraft.
That might sound like an adventure. But “Ad Astra,” which stars Brad Pitt as McBride, is not an action film. Instead, it’s a deep space drama that seems to pose the age-old question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe. Instead, it asks if we’re ready for the answer.
“Ad Astra” also is a meditative character study. As we meet McBride, he’s performing repairs on an antenna that extends from Earth to the outermost layer of its atmosphere. When a power surge hits the planet and knocks McBride off the antenna, he plummets several miles to terra firma.
I don’t think I’m spoiling the movie by saying he survives. It’s a heart-pounding sequence, but instead of using the scene to thrill his viewers, writer and director James Gray demonstrates how McBride’s pulse doesn’t accelerate, even as he’s facing a messy death.
While McBride’s ability to save himself in that situation is impressive, this scene reveals him to be detached and emotionless. McBride says in a voice-over that his astronaut training has taught him to compartmentalize – to put away every extraneous matter and focus on the immediate task – but the blank look on Pitt’s face for much of the film leads me to think he’s lying to himself.
The journey across space begins after U.S. Space Command informs McBride that it has traced the source of the power surge and others like it to Neptune, where his father had traveled nearly two decades ago to observe deep space and find intelligent life.
Since the surges threaten life on Earth, McBride’s mission is to travel to Mars and establish contact with his father.
It should be clear by now that “Ad Astra” has nothing in common with “Star Trek” and other spacefaring adventures. But that doesn’t stop Gray from inserting a couple of mystifying action scenes.
Both a lunar rover chase involving moon scavengers and a bizarre baboon attack could have been lifted out of “Ad Astra” without affecting its central narrative, but I guess someone involved in the making of the film thought audiences would need a couple shots of adrenaline. I didn’t.
McBride’s quest to reunite with his father held my attention and would have been enough to carry me through “Ad Astra.” The movie’s somber tone and stark, cold settings drew me in and helped me to identify with McBride.
And although “Ad Astra” is not a beautiful film, Gray captures the unfathomable emptiness of space better than any other director has. Given his themes, I believe he achieved precisely what he’d hoped to.
Also, Pitt delivers a compelling performance. Although the role of McBride requires little more than a dead stare for much of “Ad Astra,” I quickly felt sympathy for Pitt’s McBride. And when McBride’s hardened clay exterior did finally crack, I was moved by Pitt’s portrayal of the release of McBride’s long-buried grief and yearning.
That’s not to say “Ad Astra” is without other problems. The plotting is untidy in places and the dialog is downright clunky. While Pitt’s voiceovers do shed light on McBride’s internal state, they reminded me of Harrison Ford’s awkward and pointless narration for the original theatrical release of “Blade Runner.” I hope Gray reconsiders this aspect of “Ad Astra” and releases a director’s cut without the voiceovers.
But even in the face of those issues, something inside me shifted while watching “Ad Astra,” and, one day later, I’m still feeling the effects.
As “Ad Astra” contemplates our readiness to learn whether we have celestial neighbors, it pierces the chest of humanity and shines a light on a broken heart. McBride is not just a single man, aching to reconnect with his father. He’s all of us, faced with crossing an impossible distance to find the things we’ve lost and save ourselves in the process.
Gray believes we can get there. But he also suggests the solutions lie not among the stars but here – where mankind was born, lives and faces a messy death. (Peter Schulze’s TEDx Talk, “We Aren’t Going to Mars,” would make an excellent companion piece for “Ad Astra.”)
That’s an unexpected statement for a science fiction film to make. “Ad Astra” might lack blockbuster thrills, and its footing isn’t always strong, but it delivers a profound message for our times and is worth seeing on a big screen, which I believe is the only canvas capable of capturing the scope of its themes.