Ad Astra Explained-The Sins Of The Father
Brad Pitt’s latest vehicle Ad Astra is a delight for the senses and a soulful panacea for the heart.
Courtesy of Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox
The story of Major Roy McBride(Brad Pitt) a rigidly controlled, lauded astronaut tasked with finding his father, Clifford McBride(Tommy Lee Jones) near Neptune in a desperate attempt to avert galaxy-wide destruction is massive while at the same time tiny. His father went missing during the Lima Project twenty-six years prior while trying to find life. To the world Clifford is a hero, but Roy grapples with feelings of abandonment that play out in an internal monologue heard throughout the film. Space jumping from first a Disney World version of future Moon, a starkly industrial Mars, and finally the farthest reaches of our solar system it is a depressingly private movie that is a glory to watch, just as it is painful to contemplate. When the inevitable confrontation between father and son occurs the weariness of both is almost a relief because, at last, there will be some resolution.
Roy is deeply emotional even as he cuts those feelings out of his life. Pitt’s handsome grizzled face is the visage of loneliness. He is all that is wrong with the unrealistically oppressive nature of masculinity. The “don’t feel, don’t cry, don’t need anyone or anything, and above all else show no weakness” model for men is impossible to uphold and in Roy’s case has led to a repressed rage that has left him divorced from his wife(Liv Tyler) and cut off from the world. Space is solitary, and Roy is well suited for his particularly difficult mission because of his pathological need for separation even as he rails against it. Eventually, the real story of his father’s disappearance comes to light courtesy of Sutherland’s Thomas Pruitt and a devastating monologue by his father. Combined with a betrayal from the very government who asked his frustration grows until that steely control begins to slip and the man behind the mask is revealed.
James Gray’s beautifully shot movie worries constantly. It worries about how things appear to the audience both emotionally and visually. Roy worries about whether he is like his father, although, the fact he’s concerned about that means he is not his father’s son, and the government worries that a whopper of a cover-up has doomed the world. Every moment of this intensely intimate movie pulls on your heartstrings while it bathes you in melancholy rumination.
Concerned with thought this film focuses on the eyes. It wants to show you what the characters see, what they feel, and what they want to show to the world. Teetering between wide epic shots of space, and close-ups of the characters faces this is a movie about the windows to the soul. Whether it be Pitt’s famous azure pair, Donald Sutherland’s rheumy, guilt-ridden eyes, Ruth Negga’s defiant preternaturally large orbs, or Natasha Lyonne’s quirky peepers it is obvious what is happening behind those eyes is more important than the action they see. Pitt shows it all faithfully through subtle but powerful crinkles of eyelids, tightening of jaws, and a single falling tear.
That’s not to say the wonder of space is not represented adequately because Ad Astra is breathtaking. From zero-gravity brawls, silent walks among the stars, blistering races against Moon pirates, and the heart-stopping blue rings of Neptune it’s all big-budget all the way. The simplest of shots costs millions and yet none of it matters more than Roy’s furrowed brow. Even the opening moments that fling our protagonist from a tower rooted on Earth but extending far into space, war with the ability to be both an ambitious big effects film and a profoundly individual retrospective. It is a tough balancing act that could come across manipulative, but in the hands of Gray with Pitt’s unflinching transparency, it is special.
Billed as a sci-fi blockbuster, it is really about what it means to love. What it means to sacrifice and what is a true hero. The answers are often not what we think. Father’s don’t run away even if it’s because the futility of humankind has warped their minds. Husbands don’t isolate themselves from their wives because it is more selfless to shut down, then burden them with their doubts. Hero’s aren’t perfect. They get scared, angry, disappointed, and make mistakes, and that’s okay. People are just specs of dust in a cosmic wind. Are smallness makes us vulnerable, but also makes us resilient. Until Roy embraces that very powerlessness, he can’t move on. Acceptance is strength, not denial. By the end, the Roy that returns to Earth is the actual hero, not the one that bravely shot himself into the dark void. He’s heroic for having hope, not for fearing failure.
Ad Astra is a Latin phrase which means to the stars. It is part of the larger less known phrase “Per aspera ad astra” meaning through hardships to the stars” captures the tone of this film. The concept that diamonds come from pressure and success comes from pain. Hardship is the focus, not space. In this case, literal space is not the prize but what space represents freedom, solitude, and opportunity. Roy has suffered immensely and is a stunted man as a result. His salvation, he believes, is in space just as his father thought years ago. Running as far from his problems as he can, Roy prides himself on this remoteness even as he condemns his Dad for the same thing. A very personal conflict that most can relate.
I don’t know how successful this film will be at the box office. I personally loved it and the big questions it asks. It is a gorgeous movie that is aggressively quiet and self-reflective. The action sequences are bombastic but muted. There is no doubt the space scenes are dazzling, and Brad Pitt is incredible. His profoundly honest performance should garner him an Oscar nod. His baby blues carry the movie. Ad Astra is an excruciatingly introspective film that asks personal questions to the entire universe. It is about the loss of a parent, loss of hope, and finding of humanity all in the quietest reaches of space.