Ad Astra aspires to be many things at once. And it succeeds at most of its endeavours by staying true to its vision.
Ad Astra is an enthrallingly visionary and thought-provoking film about space exploration with an unequivocally philosophical slant. James Grey produced, co-wrote and directed Ad Astra, one of the most talked about films from last year.
The film begins with a man falling to earth, namely Roy McBride, an astronaut well-known for demonstrating little to no emotional responses in the face of deadly threats. The fall which has been caused by mysterious power surges emanating from space, does not kill the astronaut, played by Brad Pitt. Instead, he is assigned to put an end to the surges that might destroy all life as we know it. Thus, the journey to the far reaches of our solar system begins as we stumble along with Brad Pitt across a bleak new world.
As per James Grey’s vision, the moon has been transformed into a tourist trap. Pirates abound in disputed lands and fight for resources. There is a sparsely occupied base on Mars with an eerie quality to it. A relentless sense of paranoia pervades these planets. And the future of mankind in space unveils itself as a nightmare too riveting to look away from.
The surges, as it turns out, have been traced to ‘The Lima Project’ - the search for extraterrestrial life headed by Clifford McBride, Roy’s hitherto dead father, played by the great Tommy Lee Jones. No one has heard from Clifford’s spaceship for 16 years since it reached Neptune. However, the surges lead to the understanding that Clifford might still be alive. Hence, Roy is the man chosen to make a long journey to the uninviting Neptune to save mankind and perhaps his father too.
Ad Astra aspires to be many things at once. And it succeeds at most of its endeavours by staying true to its vision. James Grey, the director expertly sheds light on men’s constant pursuit for some trace of meaning in their lives. It can be just as easily interpreted as a sympathetic commentary on our often futile search for God against a backdrop of the unforgiving space. But mostly, what the film deals with is a child’s complicated relationship with an absent parent and the aftermath of it. As Brad Pitt is pulled farther and farther away from earth, he has to look closer and closer at his father’s sins and his own.
The film is not only a technological feat, but also an intimate character study. Brad Pitt has delivered an exceptionally subdued and solemn performance. So much of what he has to say, he says without uttering a word. The voiceovers help us gently navigate the barriers of Roy McBride's mind and gaze at the raging battles within.
Here is a man following his father's dream. All his pursuits in life are indistinguishable from that of his father. To come to terms with his father's absence, Roy has isolated himself from all who cares for him. Yet, he cannot forgive himself. As he is haunted by a sense of loss resulting from his father's inexplicable abandonment, Roy also carries the weight of having abandoned his own wife.
In a sense, Ad Astra is more of a story of self-discovery rather than space exploration. So, the question is not whether Brad Pitt's character finds his father and the love that he has been seeking since adolescence. Rather, the question is whether he finds himself.
There are strong religious undertones throughout the film as men find it harder in a near-distant future to come to terms with God's silence and curiously resort to religion more and more. The film addresses not only the question of God's existence but also the struggle of men to ascribe meaning to their mundane lives in a seemingly godless universe.
James Grey's space epic bears strong resemblance to films like Aliens, Event Horizon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apocalypse Now, Gravity, Sunshine. Yet it is ambitious enough to stand on its own.
One of the most influential science-fiction writers, Ursula K Le Guin wrote in her bookThe Dispossessed,
“To be whole is to be part; true voyage is return.”
Similarly, Brad Pitt is on a journey that doesn't speak back to him with affection, simply because it is not to be found out there in space, the vastness of which cannot possibly preponderate over the void within him. And it is only love, traces of which are abundant in his past life that can make his pursuits meaningful.
So, for Ad Astra to be a true voyage there must be an eventual return to earth, to everything that is familiar, to a home where love prevails. And we, as the audience, hold our breath and look intently at the screen to see whether Brad Pitt eventually realizes this too.