When you’re floating around in outer space, trying to rein in a movie with a lot of ideas, it helps to have a center of gravity. In Ad Astra, everything revolves around a supernova named Alpha Nojolie (Brad Pitt).
It’s the ‘near future’, and it seems Trump has gotten his Space Force, maybe even paid for by Mexico. But don’t worry, this isn’t a political film. It’s a film in which Space Force commander Pitt is in every single frame, and fortunately, in space no one can hear me scream with delight.
Brad usually prefers goofing around in ensembles, so it’s nice to see him holding the screen all by his lonesome, and mighty lonesome indeed is his Roy McBride. McBride is a crack astronaut with a chill so steady his heartrate never rises above 80 even when he’s in grave danger or ending his marriage to Liv Tyler, who has a habit of making her movie husbands run so far from her they actually leave the planet. Roy’s bona fides make him the only one who can take out a rogue astronaut who’s parked in Neptune’s orbit with a device that could “end life as we know it” on Earth.
This would have been enough for a solid sci-fi narrative, so by making the rogue astronaut McBride’s long-absent father the film risks turning his journey into a cliché of daddy issues, or reducing the concept to ‘Apocalypse Now in Space’. But the choice ends up providing an opportunity to deliver a bigger message. Note: spoilers ahead!
For starters, the dangers McBride faces on the long trip to Neptune are presented as inevitable, outer space extensions of human folly (we never learn, do we?). The colonized moon has an Appleby’s but doesn’t have national borders, so pirates are constantly attacking the Uber Eats deliveries and no one ever gets their baby-back ribs. Getting into Mars is left to the whims of Natasha Lyonne (you have to show her a tattoo you regret), and the Swedes apparently thought giant, toothy baboons could handle deep space travel and you can guess how that ends up.
These travails are dispensed with quickly, though, as we’re encouraged to focus more on the journey going on in McBride’s head as he gets closer to his estranged father. He has regular psychiatric check-ins, which involve telling a therapy algoritym about his day. It’s like saying “Alexa, I was thinking about wearing two different colored socks because I saw it on the Thom Brown runway” and her replying “You are not to leave this house”. McBride makes it to Mars, but his Alexa decides he’s become too emotionally involved and takes him off the mission.
This leads us to the only comical interlude in the movie. McBride sneaks onto a ship bound for Neptune, and in an attempt to nab him, the three-member crew bumble 3 Stooges-style into their own deaths. One bangs her head on a window, the second stabs himself with his own knife, and Moe shoots a gun inside a space ship (which everyone knows you can only get away with on the Millennium Falcon) and hits a can of poison gas. It’s as funny as it sounds, especially when McBride pushes all the dead bodies out the window like he’s emptying a dust pan. He finds his dad (Tommy Lee Jones), who turns out to be surprisingly agreeable when Brad tells him he’s gone bonkers, a trick I need to learn for talking to my dad about Trump.
It feels a bit anti-climactic, but Ad Astra never seemed intended as an action film, despite the pirates and baboons. The deliberate quiet of the movie, and meditative pace, are tailored to Pitt’s acting style, and if you go with it, you’ll be open to the intelligent and emotional coda that he delivers beautifully.
At the end of it all, Ad Astra is right: we Earthlings are indeed all we’ve got. So stop dreaming about Mars, Elon. Wake up and smell the burning Amazon.
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