Ad Astra Review: Brad Pitt Traverses Across Space in James Gray’s Moving Odyssey

For centuries, the human race has looked to the stars for inspiration. Taking into account the environmental issues of today’s world, many people are justified in believing that outer space exploration could be a means of preserving the human race. Popular science fiction tends to present audiences with technological alternatives to the problems they face in their lives, while also addressing ethical issues that advanced machinery may cause. Director James Gray, however, asks us a very different question with Ad Astra: will exploring the far reaches of space truly benefit the human race, or will it only harm those willing enough to traverse it?
Ad Astra is a troubling but magnificent study on the stability of human emotion that follows astronaut Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt), a man who has been dehumanized by his training and seemingly lacks basic empathy or expression. Set in a distant future where technology allowing for deep space exploration has made substantial strides forward, McBride is tasked with finding his father (Tommy Lee Jones) in the far reaches of the solar system and potentially uncovering a mystery that threatens life on Earth. This is a character who clearly prefers solitude, choosing an occupation that separates him from any human connection.
McBride’s mesmerizing journey takes place after an electrical surge that has been traced back to his father’s ship, which orbits Neptune billions of miles away. Roy must deliver a nuclear bomb across the solar system to prevent further surges from growing strong enough to decimate humanity. As he traverses from Earth to the Moon to Mars and elsewhere, we slowly gain insight as to what makes him tick. Roy is put through multiple psychological tests that are meant to prevent him from feeling emotion, when in reality he slowly uncovers his own insecurities throughout the trials. He despises his father for leaving him at a young age to go to Jupiter, but spends every moment anticipating the chance to possibly reconnect. He criticizes the human race for being “world eaters,” yet is drained of his sanity after traveling alone for months.
Ad Astra represents space exploration as a mental obstacle in which one must experience prolonged loneliness and silence. Hoyte van Hoytema’s awe-inspiring cinematography flawlessly captures the vast emptiness of the cosmos, even emotionally engaging the audience as Roy’s spaceship flies across the screen. Max Richter and Lorne Balfe’s unnerving score, as well as the droning noises that the ship makes, are the only sounds that fill the theater. This atmosphere instills an anxious, mesmerizing tone onto the film that makes it nearly impossible to look away from. Brad Pitt manages to convey all of this into his nearly deadpan performance, which steadily unravels as the challenges to his character force him to emote suddenly.
James Gray and Ethan Gross’ screenplay is fairly linear, yet has much more to say under the surface. Many viewers might see this simply as the journey of a man trying to find his father, but plenty of additional themes and commentary can be taken out of the film if one chooses to look for them. Part of what makes Ad Astra succeed so well is its ability to maintain realism in a futuristic world. The solar system in this movie is not so different from our own, other than obvious technological achievements. The moon has its own colonies and an economy similar to Earth’s, even boasting its own Subway in a surprisingly humorous shot. The visual storytelling and narration from McBride, however, provide a strong critique on capitalism and human consumption. Instead of using this world’s futuristic technology to advance our species, humans have merely spread their monetary values and worries to other celestial bodies.
Despite Ad Astra’s troubling depiction of the future and its uncomfortable study on the human condition, it argues that there is still hope for us to find our personal meaning. The farther Roy McBride drifts from Earth, the closer he comes to his own identity. Instead of chasing after the footsteps of his father’s legacy, he must become his own man. Deep down, this is a film about personal healing in a world that urges us to hide our emotions. Ad Astra is certainly a slow burn, but it is a poignant, astounding journey from start to finish if viewers choose to look past the surface.

Score: ★★★★1⁄2