AD ASTRA - The Burden of the Search
Ad Astra is an intelligent piece of science-fiction that shows the burden of one’s search for purpose in the universe.
As I was sitting down to write this review of Ad Astra, the latest entry from director James Gray, I couldn’t help but think of a particular line in a particular song about space travel by Elton John. I then realized that it could be a spoiler for the entire movie. My apologies in advance for any of you that get up in your feelings about that. With that approach scrapped, I decided to go back to the assessment of the film that came to mind as I was watching it. Yes, this movie is set in the near future and involves space travel. What Ad Astra also presents is a film that serves as a meditation on one’s search for purpose in this universe and the burden that comes with the territory. It could be as simple as searching for a connection with a parent or as complicated as searching for intelligent life.
The plot of Ad Astra is pretty straight-forward even with the lofty goals underneath the surface. The film takes place in the near future during a time where Earth is being threatened by mysterious power surges. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a calm and collected soldier in the U.S. Space Command, is informed that the surges are coming from Neptune and, specifically, the Lima Project, a project that set out to search for intelligent life and was helmed by H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy’s father. Roy is tasked with traveling to Mars to transmit a message to Neptune in an attempt to establish communication with his father and find out what is happening.
Sounds pretty simple right? Well… this is outer space during a pretty interesting time we’re talking about. Roy has to deal with pirates on the moon, a harrowing distress call, and a building urge to find out what really happened with his father. Let’s just say that Roy, who is noted for his cool and reserved nature, is met with a whole slew of things that challenge his way of handling things.
The main crux of Ad Astra is how burdens impact people. Roy carries a lot of burdens with him and into space. The burden of being the son of Clifford McBride, who we are told is an utter legend in the space program, weighs on Roy a great deal. He hides it with his calm nature, which is constantly in check due to ordered psychological tests, but this burden is what ultimately drives him past his mission parameters and on a mission to reconnect with his father. The burden of being Clifford’s son sends Roy into the far reaches of the solar system to find out just who his dad really is. Roy’s burden also sees him mirroring things done by his father in an effort to find what he is looking for.
On the other end of things, Clifford’s search and the burden that has come with it is grander in his eyes. He is looking for the answer to the ultimate question. He is looking to see if there is intelligent life in the universe. His search comes with a heavy cost, but it does not phase Clifford. He is willing to accept the burden in an effort to find the answer. It’s easy to see Clifford as an artist or creative that destroys everything around them in an attempt to create a masterpiece.
The emotional pull of the story in Ad Astra is blanketed by some really interesting world-building. The early portions of the film present a society where space travel is common and the Moon is a tourist attraction that also has legitimate pirate attacks. Mars is colonized, and a seemingly throw-away line hints at troubles that happened in the Arctic Circle. These elements establish a world where space is just another location for all of man’s problems, which also goes into Clifford’s mission of trying to find something else in the universe.
The cinematography work of Hoyte van Hoytema, who goes between shots inside claustrophobic space vehicles and then the vastness of our solar system, helps to establish the scope of the film. This is a film that tells a small scale story and a large scale story. You are reminded of the personal stakes involved in Roy’s quest for his father and then the much larger stakes of Clifford’s search for intelligent life.
I rather enjoyed Ad Astra as I did not expect the film to have the two levels of storytelling at play. I thought it was going to be more of a focus on Roy’s search for his father, and, while that’s a big part of the film, it’s not the only thing at work. Through the great acting by Brad Pitt, the beautiful cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, and the clever world-building, James Gray crafts a really thought-provoking science fiction film that could have been told in a lot of different settings. You don’t have to be a science-fiction fan to get what he’s trying to say with Ad Astra.