Meditative, introspective, and gorgeously executed, Ad Astra is an art film in a blockbuster’s clothing. Behind the hard science fiction, the predictions of how the next generation of space travel will look and operate, and even moon shootouts and space chimp battles are deep ruminations on anger, masculinity, and transference of toxicity from one generation to the next. When humanity does eventually build bases on the moon and Mars, the science will have advanced but society won’t: We will still seize upon every opportunity for crass commercialism and military supremacy. And when our previously held beliefs about heroism are challenged, preventable death in the line of duty will feel empty, not valorous.
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a soldier in complete control of his emotions—at least that’s what he says during his regular psych eval. His heart rate under stress is a point of pride, and his mental acuity on the battlefield is second to none. When a series of mysterious electrical anomalies begin to threaten the stability of the solar system, he learns that his father—Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a hero and inspiration to a generation of astronauts—may still be alive orbiting Neptune, and even responsible for the devastation. Roy must now challenge what he thought he knew about his dad, and by extension, himself.
PG-13, 123 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Ad Astra blends the alienation and vastness of space from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris with the wandering introspection of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and the journey into one’s own psyche of Apocalypse Now. These are famously unforgiving movies, but co-writer-director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) is interested in more than self-expression. The themes of the film are plainly stated in Roy’s psych evals; the longer he is on this mission, the deeper into space he travels, the more he realizes his beliefs are based on lies and misconceptions that have driven him away from his wife (Liv Tyler) and anything resembling an engaged life. He is not in control of his emotions; rather, he has severed a crucial part of himself, confusing cold distance with discipline. He is a prisoner of inherited self-deception, at one point pondering “the sins of the father.”
Ad Astra is not for all audiences, but it is a resounding success in that it accomplishes its goals with style and honesty. Moviegoers looking for grim desolation in the great cosmic vacuum or a grand space adventure will find, instead, vulnerable confessions of grief and regret. The action scenes are not meant to be exciting but tragic, as lifelong soldier Roy now considers what it means to be responsible for another’s death in a philosophical sense.
With Ad Astra, Pitt continues his journey of dissecting the masculine idols of yesteryear, that he began in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There are no heroes with clean hands, and those we often look to for guidance are an illusion with the unsavory parts hidden from view. If these are not ideas you are willing to wrestle with, you may not fully enjoy the experience of Ad Astra. But if you can, try to appreciate that one of our biggest movie stars, the manliest of men, is using his platform to encourage others to look inside themselves and consider the consequences that their actions have on others.
Local theater listings
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.