'Ad Astra': It's a Grim Space Epic That Feels Too Real to Be Sci-Fi

The most realistic spacefaring science-fiction of the modern era.

We’re obligated to call director James Gray’s Ad Astra science fiction on account of the moon-based space pirates and the anti-matter tech that threatens to destroy the entire solar system, but when you’re actually sitting there watching the film, you can’t help but feel the oppressive weight of our inevitable near-future. The recent spate of sci-fi films Ad Astra draws comparisons to, namely Interstellar and Arrival, veer off into cerebral meditations about supernaturally-charged science fiction. What’s inside a black hole? What if octopus-looking aliens could perceive four dimensions? Ad Astra is more interested in the depressing reality of what space travel might actually look like very soon.

Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as an emotionally stunted astronaut venturing out into the outer reaches of our solar system to find his father, and it keeps you wondering until the very end whether or not some kind of supernatural twist is coming. I won’t spoil the ending, but know that the movie spends most of its runtime grappling with complex human emotions like the relationship between faith and doubt or how badly parents screw up their children’s psychology, rather than delving into headier sci-fi territory.

Ad Astra, like Gravity or The Martian, prefers the reality of hard science as the backbone for its narrative. Whereas those two films were science-heavy thrill rides until the end, Ad Astra transforms in its back-half into a mesmerizing meditation on human nature and a triumphant portrayal of human resilience. Somehow, director James Gray accomplishes this by sending Brad Pitt to Neptune in an adventure that feels like Heart of Darkness in space, and Pitt makes it work by transforming himself into a nearly empty husk of a human being.

But as far as the science fiction elements go, Ad Astra truly feels like the apocalyptic dystopia that real-life humanity is careening towards.

Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride in 'Ad Astra'.

Walt Disney Motion Pictures

As Major Roy McBride, Pitt is an astronaut with an impressively low heart rate (even when he’s under extreme pressure, his heart never beats more than 80 times per minute). We’re meant to read this as a mirror to his detached emotional state, one that’s ruined all of his intimate relationships — including his marriage to Liv Tyler’s Eve McBride — but it also makes him uniquely suited to his job. Roy doesn’t feel much of anything, and in key moments when average astronauts might be taken unawares by a rabid monkey, he’s able to keep his cool.

You see, when Roy was much younger, his father left on a one-way trip to Neptune to conduct anti-matter research and search for signs of alien life in other systems. Roy’s emotional response was to compartmentalize. He buried all of his emotions somewhere deep in his psyche, and only through the burden of extreme adventure can he unlock them. This is further emphasized by a dystopian near-future culture where every person venturing out into space has to undergo rigorous, frequent psychological assessments. We hear Roy’s internal dialogue evolve over time, turning these repeated and psychological assessments into a sort of emotional motif.

Roy’s detachment makes him feel subhuman, but as an astronaut, he’s also borderline superhuman. In the film’s opening sequence, prominently featured in the various trailers, he performs maintenance on an antenna that reaches from the ground on Earth all the way up into space. Some kind of energy flare triggers a power surge that causes catastrophic damage. Many other astronauts die, but Roy is able to cut the nearby power, fall back through the atmosphere while tumbling wildly in freefall, avoid passing out from dizziness, and land safely after pulling his parachute at just the right time, narrowly avoiding massive amounts of debris the entire time.

It’s an incredible spectacle.

Brad Pitt just chilling on this giant space antenna in 'Ad Astra'. 

Walt Disney Motion Pictures

Lo and behold, future-NASA thinks lingering experiments conducted by Roy’s father, the legendary Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), are what triggered the energy flare that messed up Roy’s space antenna and killed more than 43,000 people on Earth. Way out in orbit around Neptune, an anti-matter device pulses out enough energy that it could eradicate all living creatures if left unchecked.

Roy’s tasked with flying commercially to the moon, where he can hitch a ride to Mars with a group of scientists, and from there, he’ll make contact with his father using a communications laser. It shouldn’t feel like a spoiler to reveal that, in the end, Roy has to make the trek all the way out to the edge of our solar system. This Herculean voyage takes something close to a year from start to finish, and human society feels more and more like a dystopia the further we move away from Earth.

In the mall on the moon, you can shop at Subway and DHL, which feels like the obvious next step after NASA (or Space X) manages to establish a moonbase. In a bit of internal dialogue, Roy notes that his father would have been so disgusted by the creeping influence of humanity’s greed as it corrodes everything pure in the universe.

Disaster lurks around every corner, whether it’s pirates on the moon or a distress call Roy and other astronauts investigate en route to Mars that becomes the film’s most explosive and terrifying scene. Ad Astra is surprising, mesmerizing, and meditative in a way that also feels predictive.

Roy McBride prefers the isolation of space to dealing with people, emotions, and anything that doesn’t require quick reflections and a steady heartbeat. Roy needs momentum to function at even a basic level. He’s a soldier in an astronaut’s uniform, and without any orders, he might as well be adrift in space. When Roy’s forced into downtime in a Mars bedroom that projects giant scenes of Earth wildlife onto the walls and ceilings, you can feel some future psychologist promising this will soothe anxiety. Instead, it starts to make Ad Astra feel like an unsettling horror movie. Roy starts to go a little crazy, and so does the viewer.

Comparing Ad Astra to Heart of Darkness works because, like Joseph Conrad’s novel, James Gray’s film mines the human heart to see what kind of universal, primitive darkness dwells there. And all narrative momentum arises from one man trying to hunt another in a treacherous, unknowable environment. In 1899 that was the Congo; In 2019 it’s the outer solar system.

For its first half, Ad Astra is fast-paced and exciting, fueled by the thrill of the unknown. But Ad Astra’s final act is rife with emotional devastation. Whatever closure lies out near Neptune, the film definitely earns, but the emotional toll it takes on Roy and the viewer is almost too much to bear.

Ad Astra hits theaters on September 20, 2019.

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