This review contains mild thematic and story spoilers.
Ad Astra Per Aspera: “A rough road leads to the stars.”
Until five cycles around the Sun had passed for me, it had never occurred to me that not having a father was unusual. My mother, having endeavored to make sure I was never wanting, had only rarely spoken of him, and even after the man himself had come back into my life, she was keen on never letting me feel his absence. I had love, and was loved, and when my biological dad well and truly vanished when I was 13, I did not miss him. Truthfully, when I received the compact, studious, emotionally detached letter inviting me to his funeral services, I had gone a number of rotations without ever thinking of him at all. My mother’s second husband had replaced him completely in my mind as the paternal figure in my life. And it was his influence against which I rebelled for most of my life. He was strict (especially compared to my mother, whom I only recognize in hindsight as having coddled me, perhaps due to being her self-professed last chance at a child), and he was frequently unamused by my myriad antics. I chafed under his supervision. I sometimes resented him. I wanted more.
Ad Astra, the latest film from Jams Gray, the cinematic wizard previously behind The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z, was almost certainly written with a mind that also wanted more. One that wondered at the majesty of the cosmos, filled itself with curiosity and delight, and internal torment when it turned its gaze Earthward. Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, the astronaut and military veteran son of Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride, a bonafide legend in the near-future…who disappeared over a decade ago, on a doomed expedition to the outer reaches of the solar system. Clifford’s status looms large over Roy (several people can only seem to make conversation with him when it’s about his father being a space badass), and this extends to his attitude on life – even among a long streak of protagonists who bury their emotions deep inside themselves, Roy stands head and shoulders above, even taking psychological tests with regularity, almost to prove to himself that he is simply better due to his detachment. This detachment has led to his great professional success, but also alienated others and sabotaged his relationships, chief among them his wife, played by Liv Tyler (if I had to make a significant criticism, it would be that her character is ably portrayed but rather thinly sketched, and not in enough of the movie). His superiors, noting his connection to his father, and his capabilities, send him on a mission to potentially stop the mysterious energy surges that have recently started to plague Earth and her colonies on Luna and Mars (the subtle but present world-building suggests a future rife with disgusting hyper-capitalism and regional conflicts, with bandits on the Moon and a colony that more accurately resembles a mall than something in which anyone would want to live). They need him, they say. He’s got a resting BPM of 47. He’s almost completely dead inside. He’s perfect.
And so he goes, into his personal Heart of Darkness journey across the lonely planets in search of answers. The vignettes range from wild action (there’s a rover chase that ranks among my favorite scenes of any film this year), to dips into full-blown horror (a tense, harrowing space-walk section), to heady philosophical dialogues between characters who seem to possess the same world-weariness (space-weariness?), people who feel at the end of their ropes, emotionally and physically. It’s another in a glorious recent line of hard sci-fi that takes space travel seriously, with long periods of nothing, rickety rockets that feel like they’re about to fall apart at a moment’s notice, and close attention paid to real physics (with just enough fudging that allows for fantastic visual moments that don’t stray too far from plausibility). It does a magnificent job of showing instead of telling, and even the occasional narration from the main character enhances our understanding of events, rather than succumbing to the all-too common impulse to reiterate points the film has already made. Confidence is the name of the game here – Brad Pitt exudes it, the direction is resplendent and assured, the score from Max Richter (The Leftovers, Shutter Island, Waltz With Bashir) a triumph. Here are masters of their craft, taking what is ultimately a fairly simple premise and elevating through filmmaking verve and unrivaled craftsmanship. Form and function merge, and in the awe-inspiring climax, they create singular moments of clarity and catharsis, both for Roy himself and maybe us as well.
My stepfather imparted so much of himself in me, even when I didn’t recognize it at the time. I inherited my sense of humor from his approach to life, as well my love of mechanical wonders, of cars and planes and space and the infinite. He was so curious, and though he was not an engineer, he was perpetually fascinated with the workings of things, of how the interconnecting gears and whirring parts created a complex piece of functional art. He was a painter, and amateur mechanic, and good with his hands. He watched every space show he could find, and filled many an afternoon with marathons of How It’s Made, marveling at everything from pencils to airplane engines to particle accelerators. Can one escape a strict Roman Catholic upbringing without being imparted some fear and awe of the infinite? I suspect not, and even in his later years, after my mother’s illness got worse, after we had a long conversation about the division of care that would need to take place, he sometimes spoke of hoping there would be something afterwards, even as I feel he never truly believed in an afterlife. Even after my mother passed, even as he himself became wracked with physical illness, partially the result of a long career in grueling manufacturing labor, he would look to the stars…the heavens? He once told me he wanted to be an astronaut, but quipped that NASA probably wanted “someone less fat, someone less likely to accidentally become their own planet.” I believed him, on both counts. I wish I could talk to him again. I think about all this every time I look up to the stars. My lifelong sci-fi obsession means I too wish I could walk among them, even as I know that I never will. I know my stepfather, my real father, felt the same.
And here we are. We’re on a massive spheroid, orbiting a nuclear engine of creation, surrounded by the dark. We’re together, says Ad Astra. We need to be the best people we can be, and not lose sight of each other, even when things seem hopeless or despairing. To be beholden to our professional obligations to the exclusion of all else is to become separated from the thread of existence. To become unmoored is a death sentence in space, and spiritually deadening here on our pale blue dot. Cling fast to those you love. We’re all we’ve got.