It’s October, which means it is time for existential thrillers about space with a strong focus on interpersonal relationships, featuring A-List talent. That’s not a slight. I like weird space movies that nicely navigate a small story using the backdrop of the vast void of the universe. Whether it’s something like Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” remake, Christopher Nolan’s hokey “Interstellar,” “Passengers,” “High Life” or even something more earthbound like “Arrival,” there’s a lot of solid drama to be plucked from the stars.
“Ad Astra” is the latest movie to unleash an interstellar epic with personal family drama. It does a good job of combining small-scale storytelling with some huge set pieces. Rarely has space felt so accessible and yet so empty.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an accomplished astronaut, and we learn two things about him that you know are going to come back up later: He’s the son of the most famous space explorer ever, and he rarely gets rattled. Even in the most stressful scenarios, Roy is able to retain a level of calm akin to an anesthetized Tibetan monk at a Phish concert.
Earth is struck by a power surge, which kills tens of thousands of people and threatens our very existence. Roy is told by his superiors these surges are emanating from a ship piloted by his father that went missing 16 years ago. They believe his father is still alive and need Roy to send a message to help avert a potential world-ending crisis. Roy agrees to go on the mission, which also serves as a great opportunity for moments where he can stare out the window into the void of space and think about the troubled relationship he had with his father. In space, no one can hear you scream, “Why, Daddy, why?!”
In addition to all the angst Roy is dealing with, there are actual external threats that could end Roy’s mission—and I’m not just talking about space debris or sabotage. There are more surprising threats like pirates on the moon and baboons in zero gravity. Both sequences are as awesome as they sound. I never knew I needed to see Brad Pitt blow up a monkey in space; now, I don’t know how I ever lived without it.
Pitt does an excellent job. My enjoyment of “Ad Astra” might hinge on how much I enjoy watching the veteran leading man emote without saying a word. In fact, Roy does more talking in voiceover than with other characters in the film. The exploratory nature of the film skews more inward than outward. In the hands of a lesser actor, it could have been downright painful to watch.
To be fair I would understand if people described the slow-burn storytelling of “Ad Astra” as being slow or difficult to get into; however, I found myself fascinated by the world writer/director James Gray has created. There’s a certain lo-fi, industrial feel to the space-faring technology in the movie. It is a future that looks engineered by Halliburton and devoid of the magic so many science-fiction films try to create.
The film’s overall theme is basic enough: Humanity went into the depths of space, seeking out intelligent life to answer the eternal question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe. The exploration is juxtaposed against Roy’s own fractured relationship with his father and estranged wife. Roy has to go out into the depths of the solar system to learn that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone, and sometimes what you’ve been looking for may have been standing right in front of you all along. Essentially, it delivers warm fuzzies in the coldest, loneliest corners of space. As far as existential space dramas go, the movie is engaging and entertaining enough to warrant a watch—even if it feels like the whole trip is one we’ve already taken before.