My sci-fi tastes have always run in the broadly philosophical direction: perhaps it’s my lack of a STEM professional background, but I’d rather see a story more focused on the great search for meaning than on the technical details of orbital superweapons or warp drives. “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Fountain,” and “Interstellar” are my jam.
“Ad Astra”—this month’s art-SF blockbuster from director James Gray and star Brad Pitt—is a superb example of that sensibility. Blending haunting visuals with a compelling and original narrative, it’s exactly the kind of “movie for adults” that Hollywood should make more of.
In the near future, Roy McBride (Pitt) is a successful astronaut who’s reached the top of his profession by deadening his emotions. Ubiquitous “psychological evaluation” computer systems, administered by the United States Space Command (“SpaceCom”) constantly assess the mental stability of astronauts traveling through deep space, hoping to avoid psychotic breakdowns.
Roy’s life is disrupted when SpaceCom informs him that his long-lost father, astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), may be alive on the outskirts of the planet Neptune. At last report, Clifford was conducting mysterious experiments involving antimatter with the enigmatic Lima Project. Now, with cosmic-ray energy surges producing electromagnetic pulses across the solar system, Roy must find his father and somehow put an end to the surges. The journey takes Roy from Earth to the Moon (via a Virgin Atlantic flight—the Moon has become an elite tourist destination), from the Moon to Mars (where a lone military outpost beams laser-guided messages into deep space), and from Mars to Neptune’s rings.
Without giving too much away, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence plays a key role in the film. And as a result, the movie’s pivotal plot points admit of multiple interpretations. Viewed from one angle, “Ad Astra” is a critique of scientific research practices that prioritize an ever-elusive “quest for intelligent life in the cosmos” over improvement of the human condition. Viewed from another, the film is a critique of religion—that is, the search for transcendent meaning and purpose beyond what humans create themselves. But at the deepest and most fundamental level, I think “Ad Astra” is best read as a critique of scientism—the philosophical stance that life’s meaning is exclusively found within the process of empirical investigation, and that that which is non-quantifiable is not worth speaking about.
It’s this very ambiguity of message that makes “Ad Astra” so deeply compelling. And similarly, in keeping with that general approach, there are all sorts of things in “Ad Astra” that we glimpse once and never again: a miles-high antenna stretching from the Earth’s surface into outer space, violent separatists on the Moon who prowl the Sea of Tranquility on plundered rovers, raging primates in an abandoned space station, and much more. I’ve often thought that the movies that haunt us most are those that don’t feel the need to explain themselves at every step. Contemporary Hollywood, all too often, feels the need to provide backstory for everything: since the rerelease of “Star Wars” in 1997, every peripheral character in every blockbuster seems to end up with a plotline of their own (and sometimes even a cinematic spinoff). Overly commercialized, “Ad Astra” is not—and it’s so much the better for it.
The film also holds water on technical fronts. From a narrative standpoint, the film mercifully avoids cumbersome subplots (“Interstellar,” for all its virtues, was a pretty bloated product): it’s a propulsive, pitilessly linear tale that never loses itself in navel-gazing. And, to be sure, Pitt is great in the lead (as plenty of reviews have already pointed out, his star turn here is borderline Oscar bait).
In short, if philosophically-minded sci-fi is your thing (and you were a little annoyed that “Interstellar” lapsed so heavily into sentimentality and over-exposition by the end), “Ad Astra” is the movie you’ve been longing for. It’s a genuinely original story in a marketplace saturated with reboots, sequels, and reimaginings—and it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Highly recommended.