“Ad Astra”: Outer Space Meets Inner Life

Brad Pitt and director James Gray tell an intimate tale on a cosmic scale

Oscar Kim Bauman, Living Arts Editor

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“Ad Astra” is, on paper, a science fiction epic starring Brad Pitt, in which Pitt’s character, an accomplished astronaut named Roy McBride, must face a cosmic menace which threatens Earth itself. But it’s probably not the kind of film you would expect based on that description. As directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ethan Gross, “Ad Astra”, rather than an action-packed space adventure, is a largely mellow emotional journey, both its themes and plot undergirded by Pitt’s subtle, melancholy performance.

The film is set in an unnamed year in the near future. It is far enough away to have well-worn commercial travel between Earth and the moon, and a longstanding base on Mars, but close enough that the moon base looks more like a grimy Earth airport than something off of “Star Trek”. The setting isn’t impressive because it isn’t meant to be. “Ad Astra’s” most impressive moments come not from dazzling displays of future technology, but from the vast expanse of space and extraterrestrial surfaces. Shot with an impressive sense of scale by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and given greater ambiance by Max Richter’s atmospheric score. 

The narrative of “Ad Astra” begins with a tense sequence in which Roy is flung from an enormous antenna in Earth’s upper atmosphere, as a power surge short-circuits his equipment. After a nail-biting fall back to Earth, Roy is informed by his superiors of the true threat behind the surge. The energy, which is coming in waves, and threatens much of the world’s infrastructure, originates from a long-thought-abandoned outpost near Neptune. 

It was from this outpost, known as the Lima Project, that Roy’s father, legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride, played with grizzled intensity by Tommy Lee Jones, was last contacted, sixteen years prior. Clifford had been presumed dead, but the government now fears that he is in fact alive, and somehow connected to these threatening power surges. Roy’s mission, at the outset, is simple: he is to travel to an undamaged base on Mars, and send a message to his father, seeking to gain his aid in stopping the surges. 

Without going into detail as to the rest of the plot as to leave some mysteries intact, needless to say, the mission gets more complicated and perilous than it initially would seem. In order to save not only himself, but everyone else back on Earth, Roy must reconnect with his father in more ways than one. 

“Ad Astra” has faced some criticism for its lack of focus on female characters. While there are women in the film, notably Ruth Negga as the Mars base’s enigmatic director, and Liv Tyler as Roy’s wife, alienated from her husband by his single-minded focus on his work, few characters, male or female, receive much time beyond the two central McBride men.

However, rather than a chauvinistic male-dominated narrative, “Ad Astra” instead uses its focus on the father-son relationship to engage in a thoughtful critique of masculinity. Despite his accomplished career and, well, Brad Pitt-level looks, Roy is not a whole man. His inability to process his father’s absence in a healthy way left him emotionally stunted, evidenced not only by his distant relationship with his wife, but his overall detached demeanor with everyone he meets. 

Clifford, to his credit, doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would have made a particularly good father even if he hadn’t gotten lost in space. While Roy struggles with the fact that he focuses on space to the detriment of his interpersonal relationships, Clifford is through with struggling, instead comfortably ignoring humanity to focus on space. When he ultimately reunites with his son, he is utterly indifferent in the face of a son still hopeful for affection from his father. 

“Ad Astra” has faced a mixed reception, particularly from mass audiences, its 42% Rotten Tomatoes audience score barely more than half of its 83% critical score. This may largely be chalked up to marketing. Audiences seeking a fast-paced, “Star Wars” style space adventure would certainly be disappointed. However, if you’re in the market for something more somber and introspective, “Ad Astra” is an absolutely engrossing journey to both the outer reaches of our solar system and the inner depths of human emotion, and the ways we deal with them, or fail to.