Ad Astra (Latin for ‘To the Stars’) is, ostensibly, a tale of a son daring everything to reconnect with his father. While it does that, it might, even more importantly, be a tale of man finding himself at the end of the solar system.
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Situationally, Ad Astra sets up a basic premise: thirty years ago, Doctor H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) set out to search for other intelligent life in the universe from the best possible vantage point in orbit around Neptune. It was called the Lima Project.
Now, it appears that whatever he did out there has caused a series of electromagnetic pulses that could destroy the solar system – and his son, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) has been assigned to re-establish contact and, if necessary, destroy the Lima Project.
He will travel to the moon, commercially (Subway has a Moon franchise!), with an old friend of his father’s, Col. Thomas Pruitt (retired), as a classified liaison/observer). It’s a small role time-wise, but it is key (as are two other important roles) and Sutherland brings his best avuncular manner to it.
Director/co-writer (with Ethan Gross) James Gray (The Lost City of Z) has put together a meditation on self and the father/son relationship that may not be perfect – he folds in some action/thriller elements that might serve to reinforce Roy’s stability (frequently referred in his robo-psych evaluations), but seems at odds with the general tenor of the film (the Moon sequence is fun but weird and not quite of a piece with the rest of the film).
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s (Dunkirk, Spectre) cinematography is gorgeous (evoking the feel of sci-greats like Solaris and Gravity) and, it seems likely, making use of photos sent back from space to create the planets of the outer solar system.
Flashbacks enable us to see Doctor McBride as he prepares for the Lima Project, while also allowing us to see his son’s marriage fall apart because of his commitment to the space exploration program.
SpaceCom, the military subsidiary in charge of space exploration, has painted the senior McBride as a hero, but when Roy reaches Mars to make contact with his father (through advanced lasercast technology), the base commander, Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), suggests his father was something else – something that had to be covered up.
Throughout Ad Astra Roy takes the aforementioned robo-psych evaluations which are always approved – even when he shares some details involving his personal rage and how it has affected his life.
Following his attempts to contact his father from Mars, he is suddenly found psychologically unfit to proceed to Neptune.
Gray has paced Ad Astra very deliberately – with lots of close-ups of Roy’s face as he goes about his mission – which gives Pitt plenty of time show us what he’s feeling through subtle changes in his facial expressions.
If you go into Ad Astra expecting an action/thriller you will, most likely be disappointed.
If, on the other hand, you expect something a bit more thoughtful – and thought-provoking – you find a lot to think about in the film.