Ad Astra: A journey upriver to meet your demons, internal and otherwise


Brad Pitt stars as an astronaut in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones) in Ad Astra.

On its own, the title of this week’s blockbuster release—Ad Astra, Latin for “to the stars”—doesn’t tell you much about what the film is about. The trailers haven’t done much to clarify, promising everything from family drama to violent car chases on the Moon.

None of the details provide much clarity, either. The movie was co-written and directed by James Gray, whose films have tended to be on the critically acclaimed, publicly obscure end of the spectrum and are set in realistic versions of the present. Yet this one is clearly set in a sci-fi future and is loomed over by enormous Hollywood figures including Jones, Pitt, and Donald Sutherland.

The movie holds together much better than that description might suggest. While there’s plenty here to nitpick, the film offers an interesting vision of the future and a plot that enables its focused human drama to become central to that future. What follows is a review that will attempt to spoil nothing that wasn’t already revealed in the trailers.

The First Family of Space Force

The film centers on Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride, an officer in a military organization that seems to be a descendant of the US Space Force. McBride is a highly respected officer in his own right—the film opens with him narrowly escaping death on the job—and the son of one of the Solar System’s great explorers (Tommy Lee Jones’ Clifford McBride) who was lost on an expedition to the outer planets.

The disaster that sets the film in motion is tied to that expedition—and suggests early on that Clifford might not actually be lost. The military sends Roy on a journey to Mars to try to make contact. What follows is a journey both in space-time and in the equally treacherous world of McBride’s own head. The former gives the film an episodic quality, as each step of the journey introduces new environments and characters. That propels the latter, as those steps reveal progressively more about Clifford. This complicates Roy’s view of himself, which developed in part through his father’s absence.

The episodic nature of the journey, along with the growing unease it creates, makes comparisons to Apocalypse Now inevitable. But Ad Astra is exceptional in how many other movies it instantly evokes (as opposed to having those parallels require later reflection). Pitt leaves Earth? 2001. The chaos that leads to a car chase on the Moon? Fury Road. Even Pitt’s emotional journey, mostly conveyed by him staring emotionlessly while processing things, brought to mind Ryan Gosling’s performance as Neil Armstrong in First Man.

This isn’t a bad thing; all of those are excellent movies in their own way, and Ad Astra evokes them rather than copies them. There’s also enough going on that’s uniquely its own that this feeling doesn’t seem intrusive.

The fictional universe this world takes place in is somewhat closer to the present than it is to something like The Expanse. Humans have a permanent presence on the Moon and a toehold on Mars, but the outer Solar System hasn’t seen our presence since the elder McBride’s vanished expedition. Transport is provided primarily by rockets that look like larger versions of some of the hardware we use, complete with strapped-on boosters that fall away on the trip to orbit.

Nitpickers beware

The filmmakers have clearly put effort into getting some of the physics right, despite large stretches of the film taking place in the minuscule gravity of interplanetary space. There’s also some remarkably consistent world building. Some of the procedures of spaceflight in the film were clearly derived from lessons of the elder McBride’s lost mission, but that isn’t obvious until we learn more about the mission halfway through the film.

Despite this care, there are enough glitches here to drive nitpickers nuts. By all appearances, the rockets are using standard chemical propulsion. Yet somehow, they get people to Mars in a matter of weeks, and the outer planets in a few months. There appears to be a vast underground reservoir under a rocket launch site on Mars, its presence left unexplained. Rocket launches don’t always flatten rocket occupants against the nearest seat or wall.

There’s also a few oddities in the plot itself. The writing is excellent in that it generally makes it clear what’s motivating the characters. But there’s not always a clear logical link to the actions those motivations lead to. The character played by Ruth Negga, for example, has a history intertwined with Pitt’s, but it’s not clear why that history would motivate her actions here.

Again, these things won’t dominate the viewing experience unless you’re prone to be bothered by them. For those that can set niggles aside, there’s a lot to Ad Astra. The acting is uniformly excellent, and the immersive, fully cooked special effects enabled a few really standout scenes. Perhaps more importantly, by the middle of the film, I really wanted to see how things turned out. And just as significantly, the results surprised me.



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