An astronaut must travel on a secret mission to the edge of the Solar System in a bid to save all life as we know it, and perhaps reunite with his estranged father in the process.
“Space” movies often fall into two categories, each category with a spectrum with two extremes on either end. The movie could be on the exciting > silly spectrum, or on the enlightening > boring spectrum. The best ones can dip between the two successfully or simply ace just one in all aspects, fully embracing a theme and motive. Ad Astra feels like it wants to be all things for all people, which is both good and bad.
If you know Cinema Cocoa, you know that space and sci-fi films get a pretty good write up most of the time. The vastness of space, the untouched beauty of the expanse and the meditative silence, coupled with the extraordinary will it requires from human beings to even venture out into it. It is captivating, and in this day and age, more and more unobtainable. So movies that attempt to showcase this mysterious realm of mind-bending sights and overwhelming dangers is always appealing.
Ad Astra is certainly a slow experience. If the trailer portrayed an explosive thrill ride (as it actually does at times) you will feel sorely betrayed; the film giving your mind enough time to fill in the gaps between the “good parts”, proving the rest of it to be tedious. No. The film is set in near future, and involves space travel, but it is about a son trying to find his father who had abandoned him.
Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an exceptional astronaut who has dedicated his life to his career. He has absolute resolve in his missions, to the extent that he pushes everyone else out of his life, isolating himself. He is chosen for a dangerous mission purely because it was his father who took an experimental space craft to the very edge of our Solar System, to the distant planet of Neptune, and appears to have caused electronic “surges” that are wrecking havoc on Earth and other planetary colonies.
So the film’s themes are about isolation and the human condition during isolation. Isolation because of physical removal from other people, or simply isolation because of work or responsibilities. Or both.
Much of the film’s screenplay revolves around narration, which is always a risky gamble. Nearly all of the story is told after the fact. Something drastic happens, McBride then later flashbacks to earlier events as he considers everything that had happened. This is a device to allow the character time in isolation; inner thoughts instead of blunt expositional dialogue.
This is not as bad as it sounds, as the theme of isolation is intact. But the main issue with the film is the thudding lack of human emotion. McBride is stoic and incredibly reserved and resolute. He is tested regularly for his mental fitness, and we see him always unflinching and always calm despite life threatening scenarios. Of course, the audience waits for if or when this stoic mask cracks. But as this is our main character, the story is strong armed into having very little in the way of relatable emotions. Every time McBride meets a new character there is a vacuum of chemistry; our characters are all military, career and goal driven.
The aforementioned “good parts” that are basically the entire trailer, come rather suddenly and actually feel a little detrimental to the experience. While we could be having real emotional bonds built with McBride, using flashbacks to elaborate on his relationship with his father more, we instead have Moon buggy chase sequences, with guns that go “pew” quietly. It is strange, and like the effect of lunar gravity, they feel oddly weightless; of course McBride’s mission isn’t ending here.
But for all of its tonally off moments or lack of emotion, this “space” movie is exactly that. It is a contemplative and sombre affair, about a son attempting to understand his father and maybe a part of himself.
It also has a heavily underplayed look at near future space exploration, and the sorry state it could be. When McBride visits the lunar base on the Moon’s surface, it is so well constructed and lived in that it feels like an airport. The juxtaposition of beautiful frontier space and the concept of there being a Subway sandwich shop on The Moon is frankly heartbreaking. That, and the weirdly commercial feel to space travel in general. This is quickly touched on and is in no way a heavy theme, but it was an engaging premise while it lasted.
If you aren’t at all into space movies that are slow and ponderous, you will probably be restless with Ad Astra‘s rather grim tone. But if you gobble up every shred of near-future space travel, like Moon, then there’s probably some decent moments here. Just be prepared for audience members sighing heavily behind you.