James Gray’s “Ad Astra” follows astronaut Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt, as he searches for his father and the source of dangerous power surges in deep space. The film has a beautiful visual aesthetic that harkens back to classics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and sets itself apart from other films in the genre by venturing even farther into space. The character’s journey eventually brings him to Neptune, at the edge of our solar system.
The film opens with Pitt’s character working on what seems to be an extension of the International Space Station (ISS). The visuals and sound editing coupled with the directionless and lethargic movement of Pitt’s character accurately recreate space. As our protagonist and his colleagues effortlessly float through space, one cannot help but feel the awe of their insignificant presence against the backdrop of Earth. It is not until all of the ambient noise suddenly drains out and is replaced by the low rumbling of a power surge that the audience finally realizes what structure they are working on: an antennae from Earth that is so tall, it reaches into low Earth orbit. The surge runs along the course of the structure, and Pitt watches as his colleagues are blown off of it and sent plummeting to the ground. Pitt’s character is forced to jump off seconds before the power surge reaches his position. In the following moments of him spinning through the Earth’s upper atmosphere and down towards the ground, we learn what this film has in store.
This film is very slow, both literally and figuratively. The characters move slowly as if swimming through water, as they walk along the outsides of space stations and shuttles. However, this slow feel also extends to the plot as Brad Pitt delivers meandering monologues about the nature of humanity. Though this film is technically science fiction due to its setting, there is no doubt that it is more of a drama and an intimate look at human nature. Pitt’s character is known for his fearlessness; however, this has made him an uncaring person who pushes others away. His wife, played briefly by Liv Tyler, barely knows who he is anymore, and he does not have any kids. Instead, he has devoted himself completely to the exploration of space; however, deep down, he does not care much for it beyond the connection it forges between him and his father. When Pitt’s character is finally reunited with his father, he realizes that the man is more similar to an alien than a human, as he no longer considers Earth to be home. The father so consumed with exploring space and discovering what lies in the expansive universe that when Pitt tries to save him, he untheters himself and floats off into the void.
“Ad Astra” uses the exploration of deep space as a vehicle to tell a story about humanity. The nuanced performances of the cast coupled with the awe-inspiring scenery raise questions about the point at which a human becomes an alien and suggest that the answers may lie in the void.