Here are three statements which are going to seem contradictory. Ad Astra tries very hard to explore the horrors of toxic masculinity. It succeeds, but does so in a way that will actively annoy many audiences.. You should probably watch it anyway.
In the near(ish) future, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on the kilometers tall antenna Space Command are using to search for extra-terrestrial life. Knocked from it by a massive power surge, he barely survives a parachute jump down through Earth’s atmosphere and is injured. On his recovery, he discovers the surge hit the entire planet, causing havoc and the deaths of over 40,000 people. Briefed by his superiors, he’s told that the surge was a burst of cosmic rays generated somewhere near Neptune. The location where the Lima Project, led by his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), vanished in 16 years ago.
So odds are the sciencey among you are already going ‘…what?’. I cannot help you, fact friends, This is a film which requires not so much a suspension of disbelief as placing it in the witness protection program. The only deep range rocket launch facility in the inner solar system in the middle of a war zone. There’s a fight with a pair of baboons. Liv Tyler is in maybe 120 seconds of the thing. Newton’s Laws are straight up shredded in the third act. Ad Astra is a film about the big question, and it is itself made of smaller questions. Many of them are ‘WHAT?’.
That sounds flippant I know, but believe me the movie is not. In a voice over that makes me understand why everyone but me hates the Blade Runner narration so much, Roy explains that his family were abandoned by his dad and how he’s adopted the shell of a square jawed astronaut hero as a means of survival. This is the crux of the movie, this is the vital stuff that it should be all about and it takes a while to get over being spoon fed it as well as Pitt’s carefully numb delivery. Roy is by all weights and measures happy and successful. He’s handsome, successful, physically fit, highly regarded. He’s also emotionally closed off, endlessly furious and incapable of feeling anything. The war between the two versions of the man is expressed, beautifully, in one of the film’s few entirely successful moments. Taken to Mars to send a message to the Lima Project, Roy reads the prepared script with all the sincerity of his father’s own, stilted, guilt riddled messages home. Given a second chance, he opens up completely, the tears welling as he does so. Pitt is working so hard in this movie, and this is one of the scenes where he really does gain traction. The combination of his clear grief, and the fact there was obviously a reply neither he nor we are allowed to hear, makes the scene one of the movie’s few hammer blows.
Had we got more of this, I’d be much more kindly inclined towards the movie, because when it steers in this direction, it absolutely soars. There’s a fantastic moment of masculine kindness during a bad trajectory where Roy takes control and then goes out of his way to explain why he did so. There’s a moment in the opening where the narration says ‘Don’t touch me’ at the exact moment he’s clapped on the shoulder. Roy is a seething, open wound of a man sent to retrieve the very person who inflicted the wound. How that resolves, and the choice Roy is forced to make is genuinely impressive. The fact it’s couched in a wildly seesawing stylistic shift between Total Recall and Solaris FAR less so. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to make a serious science fiction film but were terrified people would get bored so threw two fights and a deeply weird action sequence in. None of them work and, coupled with Pitt’s necessarily stony-faced, almost monotone performance, they give the movie a deeply weird and uneven feel.
But, somehow, it’s still worthwhile, even interesting, especially as a thematic and stylistic compass bearing. This feels like not just Roy’s last mission, but this sub-genre’s last hurrah. Again.
The one moment I can’t stop thinking about says so much. We see Roy delivered to a SpaceComm senior executive (Played by Greg Bryk, still with his Far Cry 5 hair, which was terrifying as I finished that this week). Roy is taken to him by Helen Lantos, the Mars base commander played by the always excellent and frequently under-used Ruth Negga. He’s briefed on what’s going on, she isn’t. The camera lingering on her before she turns her back and walks away from the room where it’s happening.
That moment, and I’d argue the entire movie, represents a vital turning point in science fiction cinema. All the things Ad Astra does right build on all the things Interstellar did right, specifically the death of the astronaut myth. Interstellar starts with Brand saying ‘We’re NASA’ the way Tony Stark says ‘I’m Iron Man’ and finishes with her burying her love and settling on a new world while Coop fixes to come find her. Ad Astra opens with Roy as an all go no quit Buzz Lightyear PTSD Edition and closes with a shy, desperate little moment of re-connection with his wife.
The astronauts are either coming in from the cold or winning Hugo awards. Space is either becoming a place everyone can be or a place people escape from or serve their penance in. The lonely astronaut has realized, at last, that Mars really isn’t the kind of place to bring up kids, at least for him. He’s realized, more importantly, that space is no longer the sole purview of square jawed cold war relics and the more diverse the people up there are, the more interesting it becomes. If there is any justice in the world, science fiction cinema will, at long last, catch up with SF literature and TV and reflect the rapidly expanding settlement of viewpoints in the field. Thank you for your service, Major. You are, at last, relieved. Now go home.
Ad Astra is complex, disjointed, po-faced, beautiful, deeply weird and JUST worth your time. It’s in cinemas now,