Ad Astra (2019)

Directed by James Gray

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Ad Astra is a little bit like Apocalypse Now in space.  It’s the story of an astronaut following in his father’s footsteps as he tracks him down, all the way from Earth to Neptune.  He has only memories of his father as well as the stories he is told, about how he has gone rogue and is the one sending out electric charges that are causing disasters back on Earth.

It’s a patient, slow burn of a space movie, like this year’s High Life and even more like Solaris, whether it’s the Tarkovsky or Soderbergh version.  These are contemplative movies that use the abyss of space to show that there’s nothing else out there.  Characters venture out into the infinite to come face to face with themselves, their past and the turbulence within their own souls.

Like another famous space movie, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, these characters go all that way just to learn some kind of internal truth, something you’d think they might be able to uncover in a few sessions of therapy.

It’s a familiar but affecting tale, of the great lengths we go to in order to address something within.  We’ll go to the edges of the known universe just to confront something in ourselves.  In this journey we meet a certain creator, be it a father or some sort of God.  Only there can you find answers, even if the answer often seems to be that you should stop looking so strenuously and maybe just learn to see what’s around you, what you’ve been missing.

In Ad Astra the hero is Roy McBride (Brad Pitt).  He’s stoic, with a heart rate that never rises above 80 BPM even when he literally falls from the fringes of the ozone layer back to Earth.  He is under control at all times, though we’re teased with images of his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him, suggesting that it’s this same stoicism that is getting in the way of his personal life.

Set in the near future, in a world in which moon travel is accessible to the public, the world is in danger thanks to electric charges that have killed over 43,000 worldwide.  They are unpredictable, like an act of God, and when the source is traced back to a doomed space mission, Lima, near Neptune, Roy is called in to help.  That’s because his famous father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) led that mission, and after having been gone for 16 years he is believed to be alive and not quite of sound mind.

From there it’s an incredibly personal story, Roy searching for his father.  Through his arc we glimpse the ways of the broader world, how things work, and how they’ve gone wrong.  There’s a Subway sandwich shop, for example, on the moon as well as moon pirates.  There’s also a base on Mars, and a woman who has lived there her whole life.

All of these details only make you lean in further, hoping to learn more about the world, but the story stays incredibly close to Roy.  There is no cross-cutting between him and a base back on Earth.  There is no other important character, no one we stay with from start to finish.  It is just Roy, alone both in space and deep within his soul.

We listen to his voiceover for the entire duration of the film, something which at times may feel a bit jarring, but as the film settles into a rhythm it feels much more natural, with us listening to his inner monologue as if we are just right there inside his mind.  We journey through space as we journey through his subconscious.

So movies like this, as they draw a parallel between space and the human soul, they suggest that we’re all one in the same.  The universe is personified, and to get a bit new age-y, I suppose we are the universe.  It’s like that quote that goes something like, “we are the universe reflecting on itself.”

So it’s a beautiful, rhythmic but at times frightening movie.  I couldn’t help but think about the things in life that scare me, as Roy discusses getting closer to the thing in life that terrifies him.  It’s also an entertaining film, with exciting, horrific thrills and enough of those details that bring the world to life enough to make it believable and intriguing but never too much that it kills the mystery.  We also want to know what else is out there, and the film leaves you wanting more.

Up Next: Upstream Color (2013), Silent Light (2007), Safety Last! (1923)

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