Review: Ad Astra Ventures Into the Cold Recesses of Emotional Isolation

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“I’m looking forward to when my solitude ends … and I can finally go home.”

In the far reaches of space, where not a sound can be heard nor a breathe can be taken, we go searching for answers. We travel beyond Earth looking for solutions to life’s biggest questions and finding solace in the potential hope that comes from it. We hope that if we can reach for the stars, then maybe our problems down in the dirt may not seem so significant and the conflicts that ale us will fade away.

It’s an expansive idea, and one that James Gray applies as an allegory on an individual level in his newest film Ad Astra, a space epic that is more personal therapy than action spectacle. Instead of grand notions involving saving the planet or national goals, Ad Astra is concerned with the ways we try to remedy our repressed internal plights, and more subtly, how we see ourselves in our father figures. But above all else, what I found to be so moving about this film is how it burrows into the most hollow spaces and pulls out some of the most interesting, complex, and deeply nuanced ideas surrounding emotional isolation, even if it comes paired with some Hollywood-ized moments.

After his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) abandons him to establish contact with extraterrestrial life in the orbit of Neptune, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) spends the next 29 years becoming an elite aerospace pilot, shutting off all emotional responses, and turning into a monolithic man of solitude. Then out of the blue, waves of anti-matter start hitting Earth, believed to be from Clifford and his long dormant “Lima Project.” With the hope of being reunited with his father, Roy embarks on a journey to find his father, and answer the questions he has stowed away for the last three decades.

Ad Astra builds itself on familiar logic: man has to travel into space because ‘X’ threatens humanity. Foundational setup to get our boy Brad up into space, but rest assured, the focus is far more human than the pitch lets on. For Roy, venturing out into the far reaches of space is a source of truth. Fatherly abandonment plagues his development, causing prolonged stints of isolation that sees him bottling up any and all emotions and pursuing the ‘greatness’ set before him by his father. As his journey progresses, planet by planet, the cracks in Roy’s facade start to appear, and Gray uses contrasts between stoic composure and emotional distress to underscore nuanced ideas about isolating oneself from others, each scene acting like a hammer blow that brings us one step closer to complete collapse.

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Roy’s ultimate goal is to find out what happened to his father and answer the questions Clifford left him when he was abandoned. The film makes plenty of allusions to Roy’s mimicry to be like his father. Whether that be the same career occupation or a subtle reflection of Roy’s image in a video log of Clifford, the film asks if we want to become like our father figures. Much of the film sees Roy unwittingly following in his father’s footsteps, and once he reaches the end of his journey, he has to confront what he has become. Without spoiling that sequence nor getting lazy with wordage, the resolve contextualizes the journey in a new thematic light, providing a conclusive answer to how we should view those masculine figures that raise us.

Gray has a defined plotting to the film that makes this character arc work. It’s sequential and orderly, but not predictively linear. So much of the film’s meat is found in what is implied, and a lot of that can be contributed to Brad Pitt’s prowess as an actor. At this point in his career, there’s nothing new about him that we didn’t already know. He’s mastered the craft and he’s a once in a generation charismatic presence with endless range. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood will get Pitt a nomination this year (and as I predict, he will win for it), but his work here is more delicate. The fragility that seeps through the cracks in Roy’s face shows how forced composure is a fine line to walk when you also want to convey psychological distress, and Pitt toes it as he does: masterfully.

I do have to mention how some of that sequential progression includes action set pieces which stick out like sore thumbs. For a film that emphasizes the internal, these bombastic moments are askew. As instances of heightened trauma to coax out specific emotions from Roy, they make sense, but they seem almost forced, even out of place. Combine that with some voice over narration akin to the original cut of Blade Runner , you start to put on your tin-foil hats and wonder if maybe the studio had a hand in this, especially considering they’re forking over $90 million for the film. 

Ad Astra meditates on the ephemeral. Its depiction of such opaque notions are fleeting and poetic, but so well realized. Deep, recessive emotions are brought to the surface with balance and a gentle touch, throttling when it matters most, and pulling back into the empty voids of space when all we need is the deafening silence to sit on our own emotions. When the facade comes crashing down, we come to realize that the walls we build to give the semblance of composure are best left lowered, that the best we can do is to reconcile with others with our grievances, that bottling up everything inside is a path to self-destruction, and that the best we can do is to live and love the only way we know how.