If the Latin title isn’t a big enough clue, “Ad Astra” lands squarely in the cerebral and philosophical sub-genre of science fiction films. While the trailer does hint at a little action and mystery, they are simply window dressing to a film that somberly addresses depression, abandonment, and other existential questions.
The film opens with a few lines of text, background information that is ultimately unnecessary as it tells us things that the audience is able to decern on it’s on a few minutes into the movie. It’s a few decades into the future and mankind has continued to search the stars for answers, be it intelligent life or a new world to inhabit. The protagonist of our film, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), begins a monotone narration that at first seems to be channeling Harrison Ford from the studio release of “Blade Runner.” But, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that it’s not a narration, but a journal of his thoughts, doubts, and pain. When Roy was a young boy, his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) led a historic exploration mission to Neptune using a new antimatter drive. After arriving, something went wrong, and neither Clifford or his crew were heard from again. From that moment on, Roy struggled with the dual image he had of his father, the man who inspired him and was seen as a heroic icon by the world, and the man who abandoned his son. This emotional trauma is heightened when Roy learns that his father is likely still alive, and threatening the Earth with annihilation. This Revelation drives Roy to find his father, hoping that he’ll have the answers or at least the closure he longs for.
Ads for “Ad Astra” boast of its impressive cast. In addition to the two already mentioned, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, and even Natasha Lyonne make appearances. Unfortunately, they are each barely more than extended cameos. While it’s a delight to see each of them, the focus is squarely on Brad Pitt and his character’s arc. The production design is another area the film truly shines. Everything feels completely plausible, no matter how futuristic the tech maybe. The space vehicles, uniforms, and procedures are brilliant combinations of classic NASA designs and potential new science.
There’s a notable emphasis on religion and belief in a higher power in many of the characters. Clifford zealously gushes about doing God’s work by finding life out in the heavens and beyond. Another pilot prays to St. Christopher before launching into orbit. These are clues to the true narrative of “Ad Astra” which addresses humanity’s craving for a purpose. Many turn to religion, others to science. Of those who turn to religion, a vast majority struggle with the same views of their Heavenly Father that Roy has of his. Does having faith that your creator is out there, and listening to your messages bring a person solace or does it breed lamentations of “why have you forsaken me?!” For those turning to Science, if it proves we are truly alone in the world, is that comforting or fuel for a nihilistic outlook?
By the end of the film, Roy will have found answers to what he’s searching for, but they may not be the ones he or the audiences expects. In many ways, this is a personal film and the message that it conveys will be as different and unique as the individual watching it.