Ad Astra Is an Immersive Step Into the Great Unknown

This one will leave you questioning your existence.

( The prospect of going to space has its own thrill—you'll get to see what Earth is like from space, you might encounter aliens, or maybe you just want to step foot on the moon. There have been a lot of space films in the recent years and while the setting is the same, some focus on alien invasion, the lack of resources, or even humanity's attempt to see what's out there. Ad Astra takes a more existential approach.

Major Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt, is an astronaut in the Earth's "near future," one where it's possible to fly commerical to the moon. Several things set Roy apart from most others in his field: his attention to detail, his ability to remain calm during high-pressure situations, and his experience. If there's anyone who can fulfill a mission in space, it's the stoic Roy who is committed to the job, and only the job.

Astronauts like him are not made overnight, and the best of the best often have to make sacrifices. Roy is surrounded with an entire team that makes space travel possible, but at the core of his humanity, he is alone.

Even in survival, he is alone. In the middle of space, an electrical surge disrupts operations and effectively kills off every spacewalker, except for Roy. His quick thinking lands him back on Earth, and the explanation of the cause behind the surge leads him on a mission that might somehow reunite him with his father, who was thought to have disappeared while on a mission 16 years before.


That father is Dr. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones, considered to be the best astronaut of all time. The last they'd seen of the veteran was on the Lima Project, a voyage meant to find life beyond Earth.

PHOTO courtesy of 20th Century Fox

It takes brilliance and madness to dedicate yourself to solitude in order to explore that which is greater than all of humanity combined. Not everyone is made for that life, and coming to grips with that fact is enough to make anyone delirious. Real-life astronauts are committed to a job that demands emotional and mental stability. It seems cool to walk on the moon, but that's not all there is to it. Interviews with astronauts rarely discuss the mental toll extended solitary space travel has on humans, but the film focuses heavily on Roy's responses to psychological tests, and how he manipulates his emotions and feelings to game not only the system, but also his own thoughts.

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Safety and well-being aside, the tests present a bigger question, and one that's harder to answer: Why exactly does Roy, and other astronauts for that matter, subject himself to this kind of work? There is indeed a greater purpose to space exploration, one that benefits mankind greatly, but it could also be to satiate the individual thirst for knowledge. It's different for all, and while Roy is the lens through which we see all the events unfold, it's never really made clear why he's here. 

Having been left behind by his father at a young age, Roy has heard of only great things about the legendary Clifford McBride, and has worked throughout his life to be just as good as his father. The self-imposed solitude that he so admired about his father, that he struggled so hard to condition himself to feel, drives him to re-evaluate his purpose and relationships, especially the one with his recently estranged wife (Liv Tyler).

PHOTO courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The film dares to ask questions bigger than the characters themselves, and far bigger than any one person in this entire universe. Humans have an innate curiosity that allows them to go beyond what is expected and unveil truths that propel science forward. But when does the learning ever stop, and if it never does, until when and where is enough?

Ad Astra, like other space films, can feel draggy, but it is because it lacks everything we consider physically exciting: sprawling landscapes, rolling hills, dynamic spaces, and human life. Here, the theory of relativity applies, and at the film's end, it can feel overwhelming and awe-inspiring—much like how space actually is for someone who must spend an extended period of time in zero-gravity.

What lends to its effectiveness are the dazzling shots set in space. No one really knows how space looks, feels, or even sounds like, and directors, scriptwriters, and sound engineers often have to fill in the blanks in order for viewers to fully immerse, and that's exactly what Ad Astra is: extravagant, realistic, and immersive.

PHOTO screencap from Ad Astra trailer

But set design is sometimes only just as good as the film's direction and delivery, and this is where director James Gray shines, and so does Pitt. The actor is in every scene and it would be so easy to grow tired of the same face for hours, but his dynamic and nuanced performance of a conflicted and stoic Roy McBride is perfectly human. You see it in his gaze, his speech, and even the tiniest quirk of his mouth.

Ultimately, Ad Astra sells the illusion of space well, but it also successfully sells the idea that behind the explorations are people with their own afflictions and motivations, all driven by their own purpose. Oftentimes, space films dwell on impending doom, family left behind, or an alien invasion, but Ad Astra is different in that while it asks what could exist beyond, it is also an inquiry of the self. It celebrates the largeness of the universe, and the smallness of individual existence without criticizing one or the other.

In the end, it is less about intelligent life out there, and more about the questions that hover in the periphery of our existence: Who do you love? What do you value? What motivates you to get up? Explorers have a willingness to dive deep into the void that is space, but perhaps questions that hit closer to home are what keep us grounded. Everyone's busy looking for what's not here, but maybe it's best to look at what is here.


RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Spots.

Ad Astra is in theaters September 20. Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

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