Science fiction is a tricky genre that, over the years has failed to find a solid, consistent audience despite pushing out some of the best movies year after year. The 2010s specifically have been a hit or miss decade for quality science fiction with at least one thought-provoking and fun sci-fi feature being released in any given year. “Inception”, “Looper”, “Gravity”, “Interstellar”, “Ex Machina”, “The Martian”, “Arrival”, “Blade Runner 2049”, and “Annihilation” are among whose genre works that have all made their mark in the past ten years, some becoming respected box office hits and other’s unfortunately overlooked gems. In 2019 “Ad Astra” looked to add its name to that list of films as the year’s big insightful sci-fi offering. Serving a somewhat of a mainstream comeback film for star Brad Pitt and directed and written by James Gray in his first attempt at cinematic science fiction, “Ad Astra” had a lot of promise as one of the few genuinely original films that could compete with franchises, remakes, adaptations and spinoffs in 2019. Whether it does well at the box office is another story, but does it live up to the powerful reputation for quality storytelling and deep narratives that has made science fiction one of the best genres of the past decade? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Ad Astra”.
“Ad Astra” focuses on Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) a hyper focused astronaut whose obsession with his job and controlling every aspect of his life and personality have caused him to lose a marriage and become emotionally distant from the rest of humanity. While helping repair a massive space antenna McBride survives a destructive power surge emanating from the dark reaches of the solar system. Roy discovers that the surge’s origin is the spacecraft of a long-lost mission called the Lima Project meant to seek out life on other planets. The mission was led by McBride’s estranged father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who government officials and space commanders believe is still alive and performing experiments resulting in the power surges that threaten humanity each time they hit Earth. Determined to reconnect with his father and put an end to the experiments, Roy agrees to journey to the outer rim of Neptune to help destroy the remains of the Lima Project. Along the way however he is forced to come to peace with his relationship with his father while also surviving the dangers of a human-populated outer space. The name of the movie, “Ad Astra”, is a Latin term that means “to the stars”.
“Ad Astra” might not be the most complex and thought provoking of the many quality science fiction films of the past decade, but it is up there with the greats of the 2010s for sure. A simple, understated and well-paced story, “Ad Astra”, like many of its contemporaries, is meant for a more patient moviegoer seeking enlightenment more than entertainment. Lucky for this movie that’s how I personally prefer my science fiction films. “Ad Astra” is a slow burn of a movie taking every advantage of its two hour run time to explore different aspects of its main character’s personal journey and psyche while also being willing to bask in the glory of its atmospheric and well designed backdrops that provide a gorgeous depiction of outer space. While some of the computer-generated effects aren’t as polished as similar films, they’re still relatively well rendered and present a believable and imaginative look at the not-too-distant future when humanity does finally break the bonds of Earth to explore space more fully. But it’s the commentary the movie shares on our obsession with that exploration that really makes “Ad Astra” such a joy to experience.
On the surface “Ad Astra” seems to be more of a visually stunning depiction of space travel, but it’s real quality hides in its ability to provide insight on the priorities of humanity and the human obsession with goals over the here and now. Brad Pitt provides one of the best performances of his career as Roy McBride absolutely dominating the screen while also providing narration in the form of journal entries over the action. Pitt’s ability to convey emotion while also keeping with his character’s nature as an almost too emotionally stable man is an important part of the deeper theme of this film which is, as previously implied, that we as a species are so obsessed with the unknown and what’s to come that we often miss appreciating what is right in front of us. This theme is presented through McBride’s attempts to come to peace with his absentee father and later in the film become even more relevant when discussing whether or not there is more life in the universe and if such discoveries are worth the sacrifice of what we have already found. While many science fiction films would embrace a more depressing look at this life lesson “Ad Astra” is a much more optimistic and positive sci-fi feature while also being willing to embrace the darker and more depressing realities that other features have made a staple of modern science fiction.
This message goes beyond just McBride’s personal journey. The main idea of priorities is more prevalent to the second half of the film while the first half is a bit more insightful to humanity as a whole. McBride has to endure several side quests on his way to his father’s ship, leading him to experience humanity in space where nothing seems to have changed for the better. Piracy, war, the delusion of control, and even commercialism are all just as relevant in space as they are on Earth showcasing that while space may be considered the final frontier humanity has a dark reputation for destroying the beauty it often seeks to explore. Thankfully “Ad Astra” doesn’t beat us over the head with this message and the same can be said for the rest of the film as time and time again its clear the movie has something to say but it never force feeds the viewer the answers. We’re left to interpret and fill in the blanks for many of its themes, even the most obvious ones, which in turn helps keep the viewers engrossed and engaged even at the slowest portions of the film. Possibly it’s only true flaw is that “Ad Astra” doesn’t take a lot of chances and thus hits some predictable story beats along the way, but if you’re willing to overlook that in favor of controlled, quality storytelling and understated acting that feels like some of the most natural performances of the year then “Ad Astra” hits most if not all the right notes.
While it’s not necessarily the most inventive science fiction film to hit the big screen over the years “Ad Astra” does continue the long and growing line of science fiction films with so much more to say and offer than simply alien attacks and cool spaceships. “Ad Astra” is a striking exploration of humanities obsession with the unknown and the bonds of family and love that seem to suffer the most from a lack of priorities. It begs to question whether or not humanity even needs to know if there’s something else on the horizon and if the consequences of dedicating ourselves to that mission are truly worth it. That message can be applied to anything in life, whether it’s a job or something grander, but of course the exploration of space is the most extreme example. Like many great science fiction novels and movies “Ad Astra” blends an imaginative and colorful interpretations of outer space with insightful commentary and ends up becoming possibly one of the most “human” genre pieces we’ve seen in a long time. It’s a worthwhile experience for those willing and patient enough to appreciate everything it has to offer and just one more film destined to be another underrated classic of science fiction from the 2010s.