When I left the press screening for Ad Astra, I was asked, as I am often, what I thought of the movie. I thought for a moment and said “I don’t really know. I’m going to have to think about it.” They laughed. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
I was expecting Ad Astra to be a thrilling adventure film — which it is — but only to a point. About three-fourths of the way in the brisk story slows to a crawl and turns into a big metaphor about father and son relationships, which is fine but it felt sort of like a bait a switch. You go to see one movie and leave realizing a saw a different one entirely. This isn’t to say that this is a bad movie. It’s not. But I don’t think that it is as “important” as it thinks it is. Then again, maybe I don’t “get” sci-fi movies.
Ad Astra is very similar in tone, style and even character to other recent space films (Gravity, The Martian, First Man) who all deal with that special type of person who makes for a great astronaut. The ones who don’t do well with relationships on earth but can keep their cool when the pressure is on in space because they don’t get all emotional. Oftentimes it is hard to root for the supposed hero because they are often portrayed as a jerk. But James Gray’s film is different. He offers a character that at first seems like the rest, but you know that there is more to him. You actually care about this guy and you want him to succeed in the end.
One thing is for sure — Ad Astra will keep you guessing. It is ultimately a mystery story but just about every other type of movie genre is represented here as well. It’s part thriller, drama, space western, horror and at times, a comedy. The story is also told in the vein of Alice in Wonderland with Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) serving as Alice trying to track down the White Rabbit of a father (Tommy Lee Jones) in space meeting a variety of characters along the way. None of them stick around for long but Pitt is in every scene.
The movie is set in the “near” future where it is now common for rich families to travel to the moon for vacation. In fact, that is Roy’s first stop on his mission to find his long-lost father whose earlier failed expedition appears to be causing all sort of havoc to the universe (and all this time we thought it was global warming!). Years before, H. Clifford McBride (Jones) was in charge of something called The Lima Project with the goal of finding intelligent life out deep in space, but his ship disappeared 16 years after launching. Having had no contact with this father in years, Roy doesn’t believe that his father is alive, but U.S. intelligence think he is and is somehow connected to the recent power surges coming from Neptune causing various catastrophes on earth.
Roy is told very little about an undercover project that will ultimately take him to a space base on Mars where he will attempt to send a voice message out into space to his father as a last ditch effort to get Clifford McBride to respond, if indeed he is still alive. The journey is in theory a simple one — fly to the moon on a commercial space shuttle, travel to a remote base to board the spacecraft Cepheus who will then fly him to Mars. Coming along for the ride is retired Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) who knew Roy’s father many years ago and keeps asking Roy if he is “okay” with this mission. Of course, things don’t go as planned.
After some drama in space with Captain Lawrence Tanner (Donnie Kershawarz) aboard the Cepheus, Roy lands on Mars and meets Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) the Superintendent of the American Section on Mars. It becomes clear that her title only goes so far as Roy is escorted to the recording studio without her. But don’t worry, she has more to say to him later on only adding to this mystery trip.
Now, you know that Tommy Lee Jones appears in the film, but it would be unfair to explain how. Some have said that he should earn an Oscar for his part, but I’m not so sure. As for Pitt, his best scene is one where he doesn’t say a word but a single tear runs down his face. You know exactly how he feels and what he is thinking without him saying so. Oh, and Liv Tyler appears briefly as Roy’s significant other on earth, but if you blink, you’ll miss her. If you’re a Tyler fan, you’ll be disappointed.
While this trip down the rabbit hole isn’t perfect, it still makes for a good time. Ultimately though, Ad Astra is a redemption and introspection story disguised as a space adventure.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.