Review: “Ad Astra,” therapy in zero gravity

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Set in outer space, “Ad Astra” is grounded in real family relationships.

By Mickie Shaw, Multimedia Editor

Photo by Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox

Director James Gray’s subtle direction, multifaceted script and Brad Pitt’s under-stated performance create a science fiction movie that is thought provoking and mysterious while containing hair raising, frightening and thrilling action often all at the same time.

[Warning spoilers ahead!]

In the future, the hunt for extraterrestrial life is a serious endeavor. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a celebrated astronaut and military officer, is first seen on a giant antenna created to search for alien life. It is an enormous spire stretching from Earth into space. The view down to Earth is endless and so realistic, it can cause dizziness. While carrying out repairs on the antenna, a massive power surge strikes the Earth from outer space destroying all electrical devices and killing tens of thousands. The surge is from outer space, and Roy is recruited to try and contact his father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) who might be the cause of the surges from space. The fate of Earth and the entire solar system is at stake if Roy fails.

“Ad Astra” is not just a sci-fi film; it is the psychological study of an adult son finally having to face his father’s legacy, his own repressed and conflicted emotions toward him and his own feelings of abandonment. While looking for his father, Roy also imagines love and recognition from his dad. “Ad Astra” is not space opera action, but a hard science fiction drama sprinkled with high intensity action.

Pitt narrates Roy’s thoughts about his father throughout the film. His low monotone voice asks if his father was broken by his last deep space mission to find life in interstellar space and if he was going to find his father or let him go. Roy’s frozen emotional state throughout the film not only detaches him from his wife but the audience too. One never feels involved with the character, and his thoughts regarding his father at times drone on and become dull. You feel like telling Roy to get over it, and at times the audience feels like a voyeur in his therapy sessions.

Despite the quiet moments in the film, and there are many, “Ad Astra,” (Latin for “to the stars”) is mesmerizing with its vision of the future, and the depictions of Jupiter and Neptune are stunning in their realism. Every location Roy travels to has its own feel and colors. Black and white for the moon, reds and yellows for Mars and rich colors for the giant gas planets.

Even a bit of humor is present. When Roy arrives on the moon for a flight transfer to Mars, he is greeted by a Subway sandwiches. Roy’s narration comments humans have made the moon like Earth. The action was exciting and even frightening at times. The chase scene on the moon was a thrill ride.

“Ad Astra” is well done, beautiful, thought provoking with just enough action to keep the film’s pace moving. The drama, however, is plodding and can be depressing. The audience never feels engaged, or sympathetic towards Roy. One never truly cares or connects with the characters.