James Gray’s first venture into science fiction, Ad Astra – which translates from Latin as “to the stars” – sees Brad Pitt front this truly gripping space tale which is a masterful disguise for something far more heartfelt. Roy McBride (Pitt) embarks on a mission across the solar system to uncover the truth about his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), and his doomed expedition which now, 30 years after its inception, threatens the universe.
What can be described as the Apocalypse Now of space exploration, Ad Astra is an emotional, deep-cutting sci-fi which espouses notions of toxic masculinity, only to continually break them down over the course of the film. Indeed, space and the dangers it poses are only the backdrop to the sobering human storyline about a son and his estranged father. It’s the truly exquisite juxtaposition of the endless expanse of space and the deeply private reflections in this film that makes it an exceptionally moving odyssey.
Pitt’s understated performance as the isolated astronaut harks back to other iterations of bold space explorers seen in film, most notably Ryan Gosling’s interpretation of Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. However, where Armstrong’s desire to explore space was haunted by death – only making peace with the tragedies as he continued his journey – Gray likewise illustrates McBride as using space travel as a means of escaping something equally personal. But what issue can be so great on Earth it should warrant leaving the planet to cope? The answer: himself.
McBride is travelling to the stars because out there, everything makes sense to him. He’s a man who early on is shown to compartmentalise his life, believing he can separate his personal afflictions from his work in a way that allows him to prosper psychologically in his job. The problem is not so simple in its solution, and Gray captures this vulnerability with graceful delicacy – weaving strands of McBride’s psyche together dexterously over the course of the film to give the viewer the same sense of growing nervousness as the character. What’s more, the colour palette – mainly consisting of orange and blue – serves as a gorgeous yet minimalist emotive representation of supposed strength and weakness, and how these two opposing factors are not as distinct as often assumed.
Yet behind the subtle undercurrents of male susceptibility is a superbly crafted science-fiction film. Gray explores the grandeur of space terrifically, without any need to go beyond the realms of conceivability. Ad Astra is far more modest than the likes of Gravity and Interstellar, but in its lack of pretension soars lightyears beyond in terms of the personal message it is trying to evoke.
Fundamentally, Ad Astra is a story about a son trying to reconnect with his long-lost father, discovering along the way that there are parts of himself that he may have lost as well. Gray has created a wonderful exploration not only of space but of the masculine culture, in this sensitive uncovering of modern tropes so easily dismissed.
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