Ad Astra movie review: Brad Pitt in an interstellar adventure rooted in the emotional brokenness of men

Ad Astra was screened at the New York Film Festival and also makes its way to Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival next week.

Siddhant Adlakha October 10, 2019 10:51:01 IST


Ad Astra will be screened at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival next week. 

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

The cold emptiness of the cosmos has been used to great emotional effect in many a space film. Tarkovsky’s Solyaris, Denis’ High Life, Cuarón’s Gravity, Nolan’s Interstellar, the list goes on. When filmmakers venture into the unknown — into this specific unknown — they tend to dig deep and find some fundamental truth about our place in the universe. After all, placing people, in all their joys and imperfections, side by side with eternal nothingness really puts things in perspective.

The aforementioned films don’t just have a backdrop on common. While they’re diverse in size and scope, they are, each of them, about parenthood in some form. In Solyaris, the grief-stricken Kris Kelvin’s story is bookended by his time with his elderly father, a framing that also calls into question the very nature of his existence. In High Life, the nihilism of endless space and a doomed Earth is contrasted with the spark of new life. when Monte fathers a child. Gravity centers on a woman enveloped by the loss of her daughter, though her disconnect seems to stem from her own distant father. And of course, the clanging emotional opera of Interstellar revolves entirely around a father’s physical absence. 

Ad Astra movie review Brad Pitt in an interstellar adventure rooted in the emotional brokenness of men

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra.

James Gray joins the aforementioned auteurs with Ad Astra, a space adventure littered with exciting action, but one rooted entirely in absent fatherhood. Not only is the distance between father and son a key theme of Ad Astra, it’s the very metaphor by which its premise functions. Where Gray used adventure to bridge emotional gaps between father and son in The Lost City of Z — a film set in the colonial past — he now uses the chasm of space in the near future to embody that very disconnect. It’s about a son clawing his way across the cosmos to find his father, fearing what he might find, but needing desperately to do so. 

Brad Pitt plays the stoic, seemingly level-headed Roy McBride, a man who puts on a happy face for his coworkers but reveals, through extensive voiceover, that it’s all an act. Roy is a renowned member of America’s “Space Command” — a futuristic, militaristic NASA — but he also happens to live in his father’s shadow. H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), head of the Lima Project, is practically a folk hero the people of Earth. He ventured out towards the edge of the solar system decades ago — when Roy was just sixteen — on a mission to find alien life, but his craft disappeared near Jupiter when Roy was twenty-nine. They relationship, for the time they knew each other, was strained. 

Now a man in his forties, Roy reflects on the emotional distance between himself and the people in his life, namely his ex-wife Eve (Liv Tyler), a distance which he frames as utilitarian, given the dangers of his job. He’s a technician aboard a massive space antenna that extends from the surface to the stratosphere. When the film opens, Roy stands atop this feat of ingenuity, barely tethered to the Earth, when a massive power surge from the far reaches of space (the first of many) causes an explosion. It’s pandemonium — Gray has a keen eye for intensity; he shoots it mostly in close up — but Roy’s heart rate barely escalates. 

Roy is at ease with his predicament, as a broken, aloof man who pushes people away. That is, until a classified meeting with Space Com reveals that Clifford is still alive, hovering somewhere around Neptune; in this moment, Roy’s boyhood longing for his father comes rushing back. What’s more, the massive power surges appear to be emanating from the Lima Craft, which was secretly experimenting with antimatter technology. SpaceComm’s plan? Sending Roy to their secure base on Mars so he can communicate with his father and convince him to shut the experiment down — lest it destroy the entire solar system. 

What follows is Roy’s undercover travel to America’s moon base — a now a commercialised station with an Applebee’s and a Subway — followed soon by his escape from moon pirates (yes, moon pirates) en route to a covert launch station, then a chilling face-off with various biological experiments en route to Mars (a particularly great scene that I’d rather not reveal) and a subsequent escape from Mars as he ventures toward Neptune to find Clifford — who may have lost his mind. That’s a condensed, spoiler-free version of what transpires, but it’s the how that separates Ad Astra from run-of-the-mill sci-fi.

While its plot fits neatly into the space adventure genre, Ad Astra is a contemplative, occasionally devastating piece.

Its action scenes are as adrenaline-pumping as anything in the Mission Impossible series. Gray’s film, however, lives and breathes in the quiet moments between the mayhem. He and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) allow washes of light to set the moody atmosphere — the deep shadows and simulated nature projections on Mars make for startling, whiplash-inducing emotional contrast — while curved lens-flares peek through the corners of the screen, as if reaching out to Roy, begging him to reach back. 

Roy is so emotionally restrained that voiceover, and SpaceComm-mandated audio logs, become a practical necessity. However, Roy’s own contemplations are more confused than revealing; he isn’t someone who fully understands his own emotions, or why he filters them through annoyance and exasperated sighs. This could very well be Brad Pitt’s finest performance. As Roy, a man shot mostly in constrained close-ups, he’s not only forced to speak without speaking, but forced to emote in a manner that obscures more than it clarifies. In terms of perspective, the audience may as well be one of Roy’s loved ones, trying to break through his hardened shell. There are moments when Roy wants to cry, or scream, or express something, but all he’s able to do is hold back — he’s a consummate professional, after all — which Pitt expresses through desperate glances and the painful resignation in his eyes. 

Have you ever seen your father cry? It probably isn’t an unrestrained wail, the way most movies make it seem. Most men, especially straight, cisgender men, cry inward in a way; it seems as if their eyes grow smaller, like something is building up underneath them. Like they’re hiding, but they want to be found. That’s most of what Brad Pitt achieves here. An unspoken, emotionally confused state of being, but one that doesn’t exist in vacuum. For Roy, this is an inherited emotional repression, passed down from a man whose love existed alongside his cruelty. An intimate, paradoxical tenet of malehood, one seldom expressed, but one that James Gray now expands across the cosmos, attacking Roy in waves like the antimatter surges from his equally broken father, billions of miles away. These surges have the power to destroy all existence, and yet, for Roy, they’re also a beacon of hope.

What does Roy fear more, I wonder — his father’s absence, or his presence? 

When Roy finally tries to communicate with Clifford, via radio transmission from Mars, his pleas out into the emptiness feel like a prayer — to a God who may never answer — that he may come to a better understanding of himself. As much Ad Astra is an interstellar adventure, it’s a tale rooted in the emotional brokenness of men, reverberating across time, space and generations.

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