“Ad Astra” takes place in the near future. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) finds himself in a stressful situation as his superiors have given him a harrowing mission. Powerful surges have been striking the Earth and its outer colonies, short-circuiting all technology and killing thousands. To make matters more disturbing, Roy’s superiors have traced the surges’ point of origin to Neptune, the same location Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), disappeared sixteen years ago. As the only living person with ties to Clifford, Roy is tasked with a top-secret mission to journey to Mars and attempt to establish contact with his father in the hope of deducing the cause of the strange surges before they plunge the Human Race into the Dark Age. However, even in the future, traveling into space is no simple task both physically and emotionally, and Roy will have to be at the top of his game if he’s going to endure the harsh journey awaiting him out in the black, unforgiving, void. The film also features Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga.
Starting with the title, we need to discuss why “Ad Astra” has a stronger meaning than most people might think. The title is half of the Latin phrase: “per aspera ad astra.” While some words are interpreted differently, the basic meaning of the idiom translates, “through hardships to the stars,” and I can think of no better phrase that summarizes Brad Pitt’s newest adventure. As of now, the movie is being dissected by every critic with a keyboard, with some calling it a “masterpiece,” and others calling it “cliché.” In my eye “Ad Astra” falls somewhere down the middle. It’s an enriching and fascinating journey, but it’s not for everyone.
“Ad Astra” is an introspective movie that shares some elements from stories like “Gravity,” “The Martian,” and even “Heart of Darkness.” It’s an odyssey-like story as we follow our protagonist’s journey from Earth, to the dark side of the Moon, to the colonies of Mars, and toward the edges of our solar system. All while taking place in a possible future that shows how space travel and colonization has altered society. Many science-fiction tales try to paint space travel as this whimsical and wonderous experience, and it can be, but the harsh reality is it can also be physically and emotionally draining for the people handling the labor. Having to deal with top-secret missions, handling the revelation they might not ever come home, grappling with the crushing reality of one’s minuscule purpose in this vast universe, which works for Brad Pitt’s character as it intertwines with his relationship to his father; an issue that has an impact on him and the mission as the plot progresses.
While the movie dips into the realm of science-fiction for some parts, it leans more toward realistic science with no sound in the vacuum of space, and even how slow they move without gravity. Which helps with the mood as we watch our character drift through space during long moments with little to no dialogue. This is not a film for someone looking for an intense space adventure like “Star Wars” or “Guardians of the Galaxy.” This is a character-driven story with a first-person narrative as we follow Brad Pitt’s character—Roy McBride—and listen to his thoughts and commentary on the world around him.
The world of “Ad Astra” is brought to life through stunning visual effects I haven’t seen since “Blade Runner 2049.” Usually, it’s easy to tell what’s real and what’s CGI in a blockbuster sci-fi film, which can sometimes take us out of the film. However, I never had that issue with “Ad Astra.” The use of practical effects and set design are seamlessly woven together, so I never found myself removed from the story. Plus, the effects are put to grand use for the film’s narrative as we follow the main character from the bright sky of Earth, through the dark atmosphere of the Moon, to the red terrain of Mars, and into the empty black void of space.
Finally, the last thing that needs addressing is Brad Pitt’s performance. Most people who are familiar with his filmography have come to know Brad Pitt as the one who plays the charismatic, often sarcastic characters. That’s not the case for his role in “Ad Astra.” Roy McBride is a composed, stoic, and emotionally closed-off type of character. For some readers and viewers, this may sound like a poor idea. I, on the other hand, actually like the idea, and found his performance enjoyable. I believe if a story is going to use a stoic character, it has to serve the narrative in some manner, either as a deconstruction as we discover why said character is so distant, or as a transformation as we see the character go through changes along the way. The film does a bit of both as we learn about Brad Pitt’s character and see how events in the movie slowly begin to affect him.
“Ad Astra” is rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and brief strong language. This is a good film, but it’s not going to entertain everyone. It’s less of a big sci-fi adventure and more of a journey in a sci-fi world. In a genre that’s overflowing with people trying to make the next “Avatar” or “Star Trek,” it’s a nice breath of fresh air to see a film attempt something marginally different. It’s almost like a dream in a way. When it’s over you’ll either forget all about it, or you’ll like it enough that you’ll remember it for a while. Which is why the final score for “Ad Astra” is a 7.5 out of 10.
Marco Island resident and avid moviegoer, Matthew Mendisana is a Lynn University alumnus. While he possesses a bachelor’s degree in science, it’s the arts that attracted his attention. In his four years at Lynn, Matthew managed to achieve Magna Cum Laude status, earn three publications in the Lynn University magazine, make a short documentary featured in the university’s Film Festival, and created a radio PSA that was later broadcasted overseas.