The near-future of James Gray’s beautiful but empty Ad Astra is, according to a helpful-but-still-frustratingly-vague title card, “a time of both hope and conflict.” Space travel is commercial (though still not entirely accessible), and humanity has erected an International Space Antennae tuned to pick up any potential signals from extraterrestrials. If only Earthlings were as proficient at deciphering their own emotional baggage. In particular need of direction is almost inhumanly dispassionate ISA astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who undertakes a top-secret mission to the edges of the solar system, urged on by the eternal, universal question: How can I better understand my father?
Er, I mean: Is there intelligent life out there? Ultimately, Ad Astra answers neither, its mood vacillating between pleasantly remote and emotionally overwrought, but it sure looks pretty while doing so.
McBride is at the top of his field, famed in equal measure for being the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), whose Lima Project set out toward Neptune 30 years prior but was eventually lost; and for keeping his cool in every situation to the point where his heart rate is an industry aspirational standard. We are introduced to Roy during a typical pre-space psychological evaluation, a process that seems as everyday as taking a pill or logging data on an app. Without each go-ahead, he would not be allowed to work on the ISA, but Roy’s unruffled calm means that viewers will never be robbed of the stunning shots of a tiny astronaut suspended on a seemingly-infinite ladder over the Earth.
This blankness is baffling, because it could be read two different ways. On the one hand, a space movie will have difficulty getting off the ground if its audience proxy is an emotional void. Imagine Gravity without Ryan Stone’s tenacity and grief; Interstellar lacking Coop’s previous life as a farmer or Amelia Brand’s insistence on love; The Martian if Mark Watney weren’t so damn resourceful. And yet, Roy’s determined tamping-down of sentiment—his true emotional turmoil revealed only in increasingly eye-rolling internal monologues—is the only thing that ensures he is called back into space over and over again, to the detriment of his marriage to Liv Tyler (who seems to have been cast just for the meta Armageddon reference). Space Comm (near-future NASA, appropriately shadowy and militaristic) needs a good little astronaut who will follow orders—in this case, undertaking a need-to-know-basis mission to Mars, for Roy to record a message for his dear estranged dad. And if he isn’t an obedient, cookie-cutter astronaut, then he definitely won’t get to travel all the way out to Neptune to see if Lima still exists and if they were successful in contacting extraterrestrials.
The fact that mysterious energy blasts known as “The Surge” are striking Earth with increased frequency would seem to point to yes. Suddenly, Roy’s mission to find his father gains the familiar urgency of the fate of the planet hanging in the balance.
Whether or not Roy’s reserve makes him a commentary on ideal astronauts, Gray (The Lost City of Z) and co-writer Ethan Gross (Fringe) seem to intend him to be a mostly blank slate on which audiences ostensibly can project their own complicated feelings about their absentee parents… so long as they are also white cis men who lost a father when they were 16. But the worlds through which he travels—that’s where viewers will find their own niches and moments to hook into.
Ad Astra’s middle act—Roy’s amusingly ponderous travel from the Earth to the Moon, then the Moon to Mars, then Mars to Neptune—could anchor its own miniseries, if not something even longer. Even though lunar travel seems mostly constrained to the upper-class, the Moon itself has been colonized to the extent that it resembles New York City’s Port Authority, or even an airport: neon signs for Applebees, Dunkin’ Donuts, and even Hudson News adorn Moon rock on the artificially-lit side, while the dark side is a Wild West, with pirate raiding teams stalking lunar rovers across airless stretches. Moon pirates! And yet they are a passing concern for Roy, and for the movie’s plot arc.
The same goes for Mars, with an underground society whose architecture nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey and whose enforced placid way of life seems descended from the psych-exam-happy Space Comm. Overseeing this alien world is Martian-born Helen Lantos, played by Ruth Negga, severely underutilized aside from a few truly arresting shots. This portion of the film features a number of cameos head-scratching in their brevity: Donald Sutherland, as a quasi-mentor figure shedding more light on Clifford’s fervency in chasing down something extraterrestrial and/or divine on the edge of space; Kimberly Elise and Jamie Kennedy as long-haulers who have Roy beat for self-enforced emotionlessness; and a surprising ray of sunshine that I won’t spoil here. With a feel like The Expanse—of scrappy, unique people with their own aspirations and psychodramas—this portion of Ad Astra’s universe could use so much more exploring.
Alas, just as Clifford doggedly went looking for God, so fixated is Roy on confronting his own maker who subsequently abandoned him. When playing off the sinister Space Comm or the sympathetic Helen, Roy’s own vulnerabilities are almost interesting; when it’s just him moving through space, the narrative nearly collapses under maudlin narration. Ad Astra seems to fall squarely on the side of journey versus destination, but the character doing the journeying must be compelling enough to justify the odyssey.
If a man’s solo travel through space with only his own inner monologue as companion is your flavor of gripping sci-fi, you’re better off rewatching The Martian.