When “The Lost City Of Z” director James Gray announced his latest film “Ad Astra” at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, he made the bold declaration that it would be “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie and to basically say, ‘Space is awfully hostile to us.'” While it is unclear if he succeeded in that regard, the feature is lined with an all-star cast and stunning visuals. The movie, on paper, seems idyllic. Its science fiction story does its best to depict a realistic version of space and space travel with incredible technical skill and stunning effects, but it fails to make an emotional connection.
In the “near future,” Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) works for the United States Space Command. After a series of electric surges begin threatening Earth’s solar system, he is called to a meeting with the brass. There he learns that his thought-dead father, famous astronaut Commander H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) may be alive. It is thought the “Project Lima” mission he vanished on sixteen years ago may have something to do with the surges since they are originating from Neptune, where his father’s team vanished in an attempt to contact extraterrestrials.
Roy is being sent to Mars with his father’s old friend Colonel Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), who had a falling-out with his dad before the Project Lima mission. They travel first to the moon where they are attacked by space pirates. Surviving the attack, Roy parts ways with Pruitt, who was injured during the assault. However, he gives Roy a message revealing a dark secret about his father and their mission. Roy boards another rocket to Mars as the surges increase in size and frequency. With the danger growing, his only hope is to contact his father before time runs out.
From a technical perspective, the movie is incredible. Everything was done with excellent detail. As Roy makes his journey into deep space, farther than most have gone before, you feel every tense moment of the lack of gravity, confinement, and the claustrophobic nature of the space vessels. There is a moment early on in the film when the character takes a high fall and you watch every moment with anticipation at the realism on screen. In addition, the musical score by Max Richter, who also worked on “Hostiles,” perfectly complemented the plot as it unfolded before you.
However, while this movie is impressive when it comes to the technical aspects, it ultimately fails to give the viewer a way to connect with it on a personal and emotional level.
Though brilliantly acted by Pitt, Roy’s character is a cold, distant protagonist who fails at evoking empathy. He follows the career path of his father, becoming an astronaut. This proves to be a detriment in his life, shown when his wife, Eve (played briefly by Liv Tyler) leaves him. His coldhearted nature pushes her away, but instead of feeling a connection with him over the collapse of his marriage, you almost feel relieved she got out when she did.
Likewise, the tone of the film is incredibly nihilistic. Religion is portrayed as an obsession to “let go” rather than a personal matter of faith to hold tight. Relationships are shown to be nothing more than a mere bumping into each other rather than emotional connections that guide our life. In the end, only the “duty” of fulfilling the mission is shown to give any sense of peace. Give your life to the state, the mission, because even if they deceive you, they are still better than those old fashioned beliefs or relationships. This left the movie with no substance.
While impressive in its visuals, composition, and even performances, the story of “Ad Astra” gets lost in its emptiness, both metaphorically in its depiction of space and literally in the weightlessness of its plot.
Check out the trailer below: