Let me coin a term: aesthetically hard science fiction. Like any genre distinction “hard science fiction” can be hard to pin down or delineate but it is usually defined in terms of a focus on speculative ideas about and grounded in science and specifically the supposed “hard” sciences (physics, chemistry) or engineering. Ad Astra isn’t “hard science fiction” in that sense but it aims for a visual aesthetic that borrows from that idea and from science fiction films about rocket-based Earth orbit or solar system space exploration. The most obvious visual debt it owes is to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 but there are elements there of less speculative space drama’s such as Hidden Figures, First Man, or Apollo 13.
I don’t want this to sound dismissive of the film but rather to help clarify what the film is. The focus on rockets and surroundings of technology that echoes the Apollo program or films about very near future space travel implies that this is a film concerned with realism in its science fiction. However, it isn’t. Rather the emphasis on rockets and classic space helmets is a visual dictionary about a model of masculinity that is associated with our stereotypes of the classic astronaut of the 1960s.
Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a man so committed to a kind of stoical indifference to emotional impact that when he falls of a giant structure at the start of the film, his heart rate never exceeds 80 beat per minute. McBride is the son of an even more famous astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) an absent father who eventually was lost on a mission to Neptune.
Meanwhile, Earth is being bombarded by mysterious electromagnetic impacts which are having a devastating impact on people and precipitating a range of technological disasters (including Brad Pitt’s fall off the giant antennae at the start of the film). Thus the film introduces it’s other cinematic parent: Apocalypse Now. In a top secret briefing, Pitt learns that his father may be alive and the experimental spaceship he commanded may be the source of the “surges” that are damaging humanity. Pitt is sent off to find his father and intervene.
From here the film is a series of vignettes as Pitt travels first to the moon, then to a military rocket base on the moon (fending of lunar marauders on the way), then off to Mars stopping off part way to answer a distress call, then to Mars and then out.
The plot logic tying each of these steps together is tissue paper thin and does not survive any examination. Ostensibly he is sent to Mars to send a message to his father although manifestly there are easier ways to get a message from Pitt to Mars to be rebroadcast than physically moving Pitt around (particularly as this has to be done “realistically” i.e. a journey of many days and at significant physical risk and which stacks up its own body count just to get Pitt to the rocket on the moon).
Director James Gray apparently set out to film “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie” but this is true only in a visual sense. The story and process doesn’t make sense in terms of realism and indeed, as a standard it only hurts the film. It would be easy to nit-pick the film to death from the absurdity that the only way from a main US lunar base to a US military lunar base is by lunar rovers across a section of the moon prone to lunar pirates who attack other lunar rovers in a bid to steal parts for lunar rovers most of which get damaged in the fight between lunar rovers. It is a brilliantly filmed and genuinely impressive sequence but it isn’t “realism” except in a very local sense. The rovers look like an extrapolation of Apollo lunar rovers and great attention has been placed on the lighting and the way gravity works but the sequence makes no other kind of sense. To add on absurdities, once Pitt is on Mars, the surface vehicles are much more solid (closed cabins etc) because visual depictions of possible real-life Mars exploration tends to imagine more advanced technology.
This technology gradient continues on to Neptune. The moon has Apollo style rovers, Mars has even better tech and when Pitt reaches Neptune he finds the long-lost spaceship of his father that has some argle-bargle antimatter device that hand-wavey does something for finding alien life etc.
Put realism aside. It is a silly standard for the film. It is part of the visual dictionary of the film and it is a stunning film to look at (definitely one for a big screen) rather than a standard to be met.
Instead, Ad Astra explore a key character type and pulls that character type apart and exposes it as a lie. Pitt plays the platonic ideal of the astronaut-man (with an emphasis on the maleness). Stoical, unflappable, mental focused on being ready to complete the mission and to make decisions under extreme stress.
We learn from the start that his career and emotional distance has alienated him from his wife (an almost invisible Liv Tyler) and his frequent mandatory automated psychological reviews are delivered in such a brilliantly understated way that they made me feel tense through out. It is with some relief that late in the film Pitt lets the character show some emotional frustration. The impact of his absent and stern father on Pitt’s character is slowly (very slowly because it is a long way to Neptune) revealed.
So, yes, this is a man-pain movie. There are women characters but there is little exploration of them as people (Ruth Neega as a key figure on the Mars base gets the most lines) but that is also true of nearly everybody but Pitt’s character. Pitt’s McBride lives in an emotional bubble, reacting only to events and to people only in so far as they are tied to those events. The film underlines that Pitt’s kind of stoicism is disastrous, unhealthy and destructive. Even the physical threat that humanity is facing stems from Pitt’s missing father, as if toxic masculinity and toxic fatherhood has found a way to beam physical blasts at the whole planet.
Do we need more films exploring male angst? Probably not and if you’ve had enough of them then you would be wise to skip Ad Astra. However, as films exploring how even apparently positive stereotypes of masculinity contain destructive elements, there is much merit here. Pitt’s flaws aren’t physical or sexual but tied to emotional distance and dependency on self-reliance. Mind you, by the end of the film he doesn’t appear to have faced any consequences for some of his bad choices (including at least one that leads to multiple deaths of innocent people).
I did enjoy the film and it is absolutely stunning to look at. It has the visual ambition of 2001 but with better technology. Yet, this is an introspective film, almost solipsistic film, where Pitt’s character has to travel all the way to Neptune to realise that Earth is where other people are.