Ad Astra (2019) is a film content in its moderate pacing and introspective nature. Director James Gray knows what he wants to say, and made a film that does so in elegant ways while managing to lean into the sci-fi genre without ever bending to audience expectations of it. It moves from scene to scene with an incredible, subdued-yet-excellent performance from Brad Pitt, who is asked to carry the solar system on his back; and he does.
Ad Astra brings quiet, contemplative brilliance to the big screen
Roy McBride (Pitt) is an astronaut just like his hero father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who was the first man to travel past Mars. Roy is nearly killed after an unknown surge causes mayhem with Earth’s electrical systems, and it is revealed to him that his father may be alive – and responsible. Roy is asked to head to Mars to send a message to his father in hopes to reason with him, in case this is a hostile attack.
It’s hard not to compare a film like this that is tackling many questions and is clearly taking some of its visual elements from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). There is one scene in particular where Roy is moving through a long chamber, and the lights of the ship are reflecting in his facemask, which very much resembles a shot from Kubrick’s masterpiece – enough that it made me think of it. Maybe it’s the quiet, existential nature of the film that brought those thoughts in the first place…but it was easy to make those connections.
The comparison to Apocalypse Now (1979) did not come to mind until Big Tuna pointed it out, but then I couldn’t not see it. Ad Astra definitely follows the narrative and thematic structure of Apocalypse Now. Both films feature a company man (a soldier and an astronaut) who is becoming disenfranchised with the company, who is sent to take care of a threat from another former company man with delusions of grandeur. While Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) takes a river to his destination – making a variety of stops along the trip – Roy stops at the Moon, then Mars, before finally trucking out on his own. If you’re going to make a spiritual sequel to older films, choosing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now are solid ones to pull from.
Despite those comparisons, Ad Astra doesn’t feel unoriginal. In fact, it feels like the next evolution of the genre. As Sci-Fi has always done, it comments on the times the film comes from through positing a not too distant future. Clifford McBride and Roy both have their eyes to the stars so much that they neglected the things and people they had on Earth. They held so tightly to their beliefs that they didn’t see the damage they were doing to those around them. Where the genre seems to change in Gray’s film is in his control with the story. There are several moments where it could have gone silly or try to play into the genre more, and Gray shows great restraint. He allows the story to be character-driven in order to support the themes it presents, and it works very well.
Ad Astra will not appeal to everyone, however, as it may not scratch the itch that some people will have for certain sci-fi elements. Fortunately, this film had me hooked early, and made me lean forward when it got to the climax – and it didn’t go insane. I really liked this movie, and – as I sit with it – I think I’m starting to love it. Ad Astra earns the Must See rating.