James Gray’s Ad Astra is mesmerizing. This quiet, big-budget sci-fi drama isn’t simply interested in space as the new frontier for exploration and the good of humanity. Instead, Ad Astra makes sure the inner self is just as important as humanity’s accomplishments, if not more. Brad Pitt delivers a fantastic yet understated performance as astronaut Roy McBride, who’s frequent psychological evaluations gives the film a chance to explore the pressures of a society hell-bent on defining what it means to be a man.
Gray couldn’t get anywhere with the personal without first establishing this new world of space exploration. Ad Astra’s world building is clever, a new layer unfolding with every scene that passes, and shown strictly visually. It’s not the fancy, high tech world of Star Trek, but it’s clear significant strides have been made toward humanity’s presence in space, so much so that if this was Star Trek, the world is on the cusp of discovering warp speed. It’s not though, but it also doesn’t take as long to travel between planets. However, Gray makes sure to point out that no matter where humanity ends up, we never change. Or, as Roy puts it, “we’re world-eaters.”
Allowing this already determined world to exist on its own gives the film time to focus on Roy’s personal struggles as an astronaut during a time when practically anybody can take a trip to the moon.
After power surges and blackouts kill thousands of people on Earth, Roy is recruited for a top secret mission to Mars, where an underground hub is the only way to contact a ship near Neptune that is causing the power surges. That ship was once operated by Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), before it lost contact with Earth years ago. The Lima Project was meant to search for signs of intelligent life, going further than no one had gone before: Neptune. Because of this, Clifford McBride is lauded as a hero among astronauts and civilians alike. But the mass power surges from Neptune indicate the ship is still active, and a secret long-held by the higher ups of NASA are what lead them to Roy. His father’s alive, and with that knowledge, Roy must confront the anger and abandonment he harbors for his father, without letting those emotions keep him from continuing the mission.
Throughout the film, Roy is congratulated on his great compartmentalization, his heart beat never going higher than 80. His psych evaluations are used to determine if he can keep with the mission. If he’s on the verge of allowing his emotions to get the better of him, he’s sent to “comfort rooms,” rooms depicting images and videos of Earth, where he’s meant to calm down. While Roy wrestles with some anger issues, any sort of emotional release is considered too dangerous for a mission. This strict regulation of emotions ultimately creates a toxic society, the ramifications of which can only ever rest on our shoulders. Society may be at fault, but that doesn’t excuse us from our actions. Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a native to Mars, who calls both her and Roy a victim of the Lima Project, reminds Roy of this in one of the film’s pivotal scenes.
This expectation to push aside any sort of emotion affects Roy’s personal life and relationships. He doesn’t have any friends, and his relationship with his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) has crumbled long before Roy was introduced to us. In fact, he’s so cut off from a life of meaning that Eve is hardly a footnote, let alone a character. Still, flashes of memories and video recordings remind us there’s something for which Roy can hold on, if he ever allows himself to. Unfortunately, this is one of Ad Astra‘s minor faults, in that it doesn’t really allow Eve to be drawn further than the supportive wife. Still, the sentiment is there.
Perhaps the most significant part of Ad Astra is showing how our ability to love and forgive not just those who have hurt us, but ourselves as well, is what makes us human. While the rest of the world might keep searching for something else “out there,” proof that we are not alone in the world, Ad Astra reminds us we’ve never been alone — we’re all each of us has got. The sooner we understand that, the better off we’ll be.