“Space I understand.”
“I’ve been trained to compartmentalize.”
“Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding.”
Since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), “outer space” has become the ultimate misnomer in filmmaking lore. More like “inner constraint,” movies have explored less the vastness of galaxies and more the psychology of the astronaut inside the tight helmet. The result is often pragmatic, sterile, and abundantly scientific, but nonetheless, entertaining.
Although I am more of an indie drama freak, I admit to my fascination of sci-fi gems like Prometheus (2012), Interstellar (2012), Gravity (2013), The Martian (2015), and even the recent bizarreness of High Life (2018).
These movies not only embrace the silence in space, they seek a spirituality in its void, and the viewer is left with the choice to have faith or just watch a movie.
Ad Astra’s plot is simple: In the “near future,” Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is asked by top governmental authority to investigate the recent power surges that have caused havoc upon a dying earth. Ironically, the disturbances are traced back to a classified mission from Neptune where communication from Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) was last received. The problem is, that mission was thirty years ago, and Roy has believed his father to be dead this entire time. The focus of Pitt’s character and the audience objective is to consider the possibility of the father being alive and the reality that he may be causing the cosmic harm on earth.
The first half of Ad Astra is, by far, the most poignant and alluring. As Roy travels further and further away from his blue marble home, Max Richter’s film score pulsates with a mechanical anxiety, reminding you that it doesn’t take much to disturb a moviegoer. The claustrophobia in the spacesuit is menacing enough compared to the boundary-less space that goes on and on. Neptune is a long journey, and throughout it, Roy is haunted by his inner thoughts of selfishness, self-doubt, disappointing the woman he left behind, and not living up to the expectations of his hero-decorated father – the very man who might turn out to be enemy number one.
Halfway through the movie (and, unfortunately, revealed in the trailer), Brad speaks into a microphone that transmits communication to the entire Solar System. His impromptu words come out like a prayer. They are directed to the unexplored vastness of space, but the sincerity behind Brad Pitt’s melancholic eyes resemble the essence of hope – hope that he will connect with his dad. It is an astounding yet subtle scene, and only the maturation of a 2019 Brad Pitt could accomplish it.
This has been Brad’s year. He saved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with his eyebrow-raising bod and likability charm. Ad Astra is more his spiritual piece – his confession, in a way. Like his close-ups in Tree of Life (2011), he transcends beyond the pretty face to a more tender, philosophical demeanor. (You could cut his facial expressions with a laser but want to pinch his cheek at the same time.)
Without spoiling it, Ad Astra’s ending is more of a preference debate than a moral one. I prefer a different take on Roy’s encounter with his father, but the more I let the ending’s reality marinate, the more I realize I am trying to take the controls to a like-father-like-son scenario, and because life is life and nature is nature, my preference is moot. I can understand and appreciate the movie’s decision, but I enjoyed more the mystical and yearning of the first hour more.
Ad Astra ***1/2 out of *****
Regardless, I admire Director James Gray for delving into sci-fi spiritualism during a day in age when it is much easier to be cynical. The hope and prayer are instilled by the mind in the space helmet, and the space is just that – space.
Lucky for us, space has the potential for anything.