I like space. This can mean two things: I like outer space, a popular setting in sci-fi cinema which represents the great unknown, and I like the figurative term “space,” in that I prefer to be alone. Growing into the person I am now, I’ve learned that my desire for solitude has become more selective—I prefer to be away from crowds of strangers, but fully enjoy being around loved ones. This is the difference between me and the star of Ad Astra, Roy McBride, who was raised in a chasm of solitude away from the man who molded him: his father and legendary astronaut, Clifford McBride.
Blade Runner 2049, this is not; the type of film dedicated to traversing the social consequences of a larger threat. Ad Astra calls on a more personal, introspective nature of lens, giving far more attention to the inner turmoil of Roy McBride. His past, so laden with tragedy and unclosed wounds, affects the outlook of his present self, which can only be described as hollow. When the threat of the existence of mankind comes to fruition, McBride’s uncanny ability to keep cool is called to carry out a top secret mission to save humanity from an unknown threat. Said threat, however, may be just as personal as it is distant.
Stepping away from general descriptions, as I believe going into this as blind as possible is the better way to go, Ad Astra has an issue with elaboration. Think of it like elementary school lessons in English class (or whatever primary language you speak, perhaps?) where the teacher incessantly drowned about “Showing, not telling.” Ad Astra tells quite a bit, with constant inner monologues and droning exposition. Many characters outside McBride feel more like animated wooden planks, only providing necessary commentary to ensure McBride isn’t totally quiet. And should you not understand what the film is trying to say, it will outright spell it out to you at regular intervals. The writing is not subtle in the slightest, which may be a blessing for those who prefer not to solve puzzles while watching films.
Apart from that, I had relatively few issues with the experience. Characters and their limited roles within the story could prove to be a dealbreaker for some, but the maintained focus on the McBride family felt more compelling in hindsight. Should there be one appeal to Ad Astra, it’s in Pitt as McBride and, to some extent, Tommy Lee Jones as his father. Piecing together the hints of turmoil between them and the effects of parenting are an undoubtedly engrossing experience that only resonates deeper in the darkness of space. Following McBride from beginning to end makes the whole journey worth it, one that (albeit painfully overdescribed) is carefully crafted and paced tremendously well, similarly to the events of the film.
What helps is the expectation of an introspective tale. I said before that I think the film is better going in blind, but this is one thing that helps its case. An emotional, cathartic, and somewhat depressing tale about the connection between people and their importance to human growth. A very, as people say, slow burn, feeding on the contemplative moments in the dark or the disturbed head games of an unstable man. Forty minutes in, I would’ve sworn I was there for over an hour. Ad Astra cradles the audience in a cloth ripped and torn, but soft all the same. Doubly effective if people just enjoy moody scenarios.
Let’s look at it this way: if you’ve seen First Man, it’s fairly similar. Not in the sense of reality, but of mood and stakes. Space and humanity. Life and death. Family and its importance. Facing the unknown. Ad Astra has the benefit of a lot of visual flair, the likes I’ve rarely seen in a film before (particularly with space). Imagining the struggles of long-distance travel and the time it consumes, accompanied by the claustrophobic chambers inside spaceships, helps the mood tremendously down the stretch. There’s a scene fairly far into the film where McBride is floating around in space with only the light of a planet in the background giving any indication of what’s occurring. I was in awe of that scene—many things attributed, but visually, it was gorgeous.
Some of the stunts performed within the film are also commendable, especially early on. One of the earliest portions of the film features an accident on a space station that McBride is stationed on, and he’s forced to jump out into the atmosphere where he falls many, many miles down onto the ground before activating a parachute. Spinning and turning every which way as the camera is fixed on his body contorting from the freefall. Such a simple and riveting experience shown in such close proximity rips the tension into oblivion. Ad Astra has a few scenes like this that add to the realism of it all.
Finales can sometimes make or break films, and I will acknowledge that this film has a very… interesting ending. Logic in a film about space travel and sci-fi finesse tends to be a little skewed, but the ending is… a little out there. Spoilers prevent me from speaking on it further; just note that, should you be interested, Ad Astra‘s ending is something that is likely an acquired taste. It may all depend on how far you’re willing to go to immerse yourself, if the film’s visuals haven’t already.
Even in today’s advanced age, sci-fi can still be seen as a niche for the “nerdy” crowd. Chances are, if you asked your grandmother if she were interested in seeing this, she’d look at you with a sweet smile and shoot you down. Even so, Ad Astra is a film that’s more likely to appeal to your grandmother than others within the genre, particularly with its not-subtle manner of moral-explaining and the heavier emphasis on action and stunts. With great pacing, an interesting lead, and visual appeal that speaks to my personal preferences, Ad Astra was a solemn and riveting experience that I can see myself watching many times over. Say it with me, class: “Emotions are cool!”
Final Score: 8/10
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