Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt, follows the story of Roy McBride, as he embarks on a journey to find the truth about his father’s – Dr. Clifford McBride decorated astronaut – experience in space and attempts to help stop the imminent destruction of the solar system and all life as we know it.
I’ve seen Ad Astra twice: once among film critics and once among a general audience. Surprisingly, the overall reception of the film was very divided. During the critics screening, we were all immersed in the world that James Gray built for us, our morning coffees sitting next to us virtually unneeded. In the general screening, people would seem bored and uninterested, some of them even nodding off every now and then. I have to admit, I was baffled at how people didn’t like it and quite honestly, is the reason I’ve written and rewritten this piece so many times.
On one hand, I absolutely adored it. Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones’ performances truly hit the mark for me. The visuals were stunning. The themes explored were well thought out. However, I also understand why some would wager against it. It is a long movie. A slow paced one at that. And without really taking the time to listen and pay close attention to the little details, you might not enjoy it as much as I did. But, let’s get into it.
I want to begin by talking about the cinematography for this film. Hoyte Van Hoytema, I applaud you. I am someone who is very pleased by visually appealing things. Aesthetics are so important to me. For the most part, many films and tv shows don’t hit that mark for me. They’re very mundane, so I simply forget about even disusing them. But Ad Astra does not fall into that category. Hoytema took the visuals and truly embraced the story in which he was telling.
With a film like Ad Astra, where there is a multitude of visual effects that need to be added to after shooting, Hoytema’s job was not easy. When Brad Pitt is simply filming in a black box that is supposed to be space, how do you direct that visual image? How do you go about ensuring you capture the best angles? When seeing the final product, it seems as if those shots, and the rest of the film, came naturally to him, making us feel immersed in Roy’s journey.
When talking about the cinematography, I briefly mentioned the visual effects of the film. Those visual effects are perhaps what truly sucks you into the film. For the most part of the film, aside from one specific scene, these visual effects were so well done that I forgot that they were just that, visual effects. The realistic detail the team put into these effects truly made the film. When doing a film in space, if the atmosphere seems fake, you’ll start to lose interest in the story. With Ad Astra being such a slow paced movie, the film really relied on the ability of these effects to hold the audience’s attention. Without them, this film wouldn’t have been what it is.
I want to talk a little bit about what this movie is really about, or at least what I took from it. Let’s face it, Clifford McBride isn’t going to be getting any awards for Solar System’s Best Dad or anything. Clifford McBride is the epitome of making his life his work, so much that Roy barely knew his dad. Roy’s image of his father is mostly structured on what legacy he left, apart from some time in his childhood. But quite honestly…that’s just about the same information that most of the other people around him know. So when Space Command asks Roy to help them find out if his father is still alive, it’s almost methodical. With Roy’s distant relationship with his father and his reputation of being a very controlled person, everything was perfect.
However, as Roy spends more time thinking about his father and what it would mean if he were alive, his true emotions begin to show. Let’s admit it, having daddy issues is something most of the population has in one form or another. I mean, not everybody’s father abandoned them to go on a highly dangerous voyage to Neptune in search for extra-terrestrial life, but it’s there. Because of this, I think that Ad Astra can resonate with most of its viewers. The exploration of one’s relationship with a father, or even just a parent, and how that image can change is something universally felt.
Roy’s trauma from his father’s abandonment doesn’t just affect the relationship he has with his father. It translates to his overall view on life and ruins the way he goes about building relationships with others. This film touches on issues of mental health and repressing those feelings and ultimately, the consequences of that repression. A major way in which this is seen is the constant psychological evaluations that Roy has to go through each step of his journey. When doing these evaluations, Roy has to be almost robotic: stating his resting BPM, listing the events of the day, state how they made him feel, all the while controlling the cadence and tone of his voice so that Space Com clears him for continuation.
Even after traumatizing events, Roy must put on a brave face and shove his emotions away in order to be approved in furthering on in his mission. While this seems like a gesture of good faith in ensuring that their team is fit for their work, it ultimately leads to repressing emotions and ultimately making things much worse than they originally would have been. What happens if you aren’t approved? You get sent to a comfort room to calm you before going back and redoing your evaluation, hopefully successful this time. To me, this serves as a cautionary commentary on the way mental health is treated in society and gives us a mock-up of what could be a reality if we keep things going at this rate.
Speaking of the commentary on mental health. Ad Astra also give us some commentary on the capitalistic nature of our society. Being a sci-fi film, it’s only fitting to imagine how the world will progress. However, when it comes to space, what the future holds isn’t what you’d expect. There isn’t any aliens or other extra-terrestrials.
Instead, you get the commercialization of the Moon where it is no longer something only select astronauts can see, but anyone can, as long as you have enough money for you flight. And don’t forget to save some extra money for your blanket and pillow back if you would like one, or a quick 6-inch sub at Subway once you arrive! These are just a few ways in which they comment on the way our society is progressing towards a future like this and definitely makes you stop to think.
I can understand why Ad Astra might not appeal to everyone. If you aren’t interested in a the more subtle explorations of relationships, trauma, and society, not even the aesthetically pleasing shots of Brad Pitt in space will grab your attention because it is a long movie of just over two hours at an incredibly slow pace. However, if you take the time to appreciate the movie as a whole length and all, I think it’s genuinely very good. I loved Ad Astra so much that I saw it twice but I understand that is might not be for everybody. All I’m suggesting is to give it a chance.
Rating – 8.5/10