The critical consensus following the release of Ad Astra is fascinating. Amusingly it’s the mirror image of the reaction that shared release day film Rambo: Last Blood received. Whereas that flick was a bloody, crowd pleasing grindhouse action romp that critics hated, Ad Astra is a heady, cerebral, slow paced story with complex themes about humanity, meaning, and interpersonal relationships that most audiences can’t seem to connect to.
Violence/Scary Images: PG-13 violence, a character is mauled offscreen; blood and a missing finger/nose is depicted; characters die of asphyxiation; some gun fighting.
Language/Crude Humor: Language throughout; one use of f*** and lighter swearing.
Sexual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: Themes of carelessness, war, backhandedness, human fallibility, etc.
Positive Content: Themes of humanism, personal growth, and overcoming personal fallibility.
I get why most audiences aren’t going to be into Ad Astra for the same reason I don’t expect most audiences to get into 2001: A Space Odyssey or a Tarkovsky film. Some movies are made to suit the tastes of cinephiles and art enthusiasts by emphasizing denser themes, more emotionally engrossing stories, and more difficult concepts over broad entertainment appeal. Some stories you have to totally let yourself be drawn into and that often isn’t what someone seeking escapism from their entertainment is eager to give. That’s something to keep in mind for the average viewer going into Ad Astra. I saw it with a pastor from my church and his one word review was “different.” If you’re the kind of cinephile who likes 2001 or Stalker, Ad Astra will more than likely be up your alley!
Ad Astra comes to us from writer/director James Gray. To be truthful I hadn’t been aware of his work until recently but much to my shock he’s rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s most quietly excellent directors working today. He’s been directing since the 1990s but got attention in 2013 for his film The Immigrant. Subsequently, he directed The Lost City of Z for Amazon Prime, a biopic about famous British archeologist Percy Fawcett who went missing in the Amazon looking for a lost highly advanced civilization. Anyone who’s seen it since its premiere will tell you it’s one of the most quietly excellent films to fly under the radar in the past several years.
Naturally this gave his newest film Ad Astra an air of prestige and excitement to those who were aware of Gray. This was additionally bolstered by the popularity of recent space thrillers like Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and First Man. Ad Astra seemed to be pitched as a movie similar to those kinds of widely appealing and thrilling science fiction films. In reality, it has a far slower and more contemplative plot than any of them.
The story follows humanity’s societal progression into a space faring civilization. Decades/centuries into the future, humanity has successfully colonized the Moon and Mars and has begun deep space missions to the far reaches of the solar system. The United States Space Command (essentially the military/Space Force) runs most of humanities space faring zones given that interplanetary piracy has become a widespread problem on the moon.
Major Joseph McBride works as an all purpose astronaut/engineer helping to repair massive antennas that are designed to contact species outside of the solar system. When one of the antennae is destroyed by a mysterious blast of anti-matter, McBride is dispatched on a secretive mission into the far reaches of the galaxy to discover the source of the blast and potentially find the hidden secrets his supposedly late father left behind when he was performing one of humanity’s riskiest deep space projects.
Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi and Knives Out, described the film as a combination of Apocalypse Now and 2001. That’s a pretty effective way to describe the basic setup. You definitely see it in the broad strokes of the film’s story and style. The narration borrows from Apocalypse Now. The structure and set pieces of 2001 are heavily referenced. Major McBride heavily resembles Captain Willard in form and function. The comparison though is mostly skin deep. Heavy handed as the references are, Ad Astra is its own movie with its own message. It’s not interested in transcendence and hopeful space-race era optimism but it’s neither a completely depraved delve into the utter bleak and horrific nature of man at war.
The soul of the movie is defined by a consistent cynicism about the nature of human accomplishments and relationships. This is reflected in our lead character Major McBride (Brad Pitt). He’s a stone cold military man who’s famous for being ultra-calm under extreme pressure. Despite this reputation, we come to see an image of a man with a complex inner life, conflicted emotions, and deep fears that he’s buried. Those problems all quickly bubble up during the course of the film with severe consequences.
The persistent theme of reaching out into the heavens for answers to humanity’s troubles mirrors McBride’s story arc. It’s important to consider with the themes that the characters seem to use the words God and Aliens interchangeably. There’s a common theme of the desire to reach out into the universe for answers and meaning. You see this reflected in man’s search for alien life, McBride’s father’s search for God, and McBride’s search for his father. These characters are all searching for the same answer to different questions. What is our place in life? Who are we?
This proves to be vitally important as we come to see the conclusion to these ideas in the final minutes. Without spoiling the ending, the movie takes a borderline atheist/humanist reading of meaning and human relationships. At the end of the day, the search for meaning seems not to improve mankind. It only spreads man’s sins out into the stars. As a Christian I don’t agree with this idea but I find the movie’s desperation and honesty towards the ultimate question of life portrayed in powerful visuals compelling.
Ad Astra isn’t shy about the fact that humans are a fallen species and it’s interested in exploring the downsides of humanity’s technological expansion. It’s honestly likely true that a humanity capable of colonizing other planets would have to deal with lawlessness, chaos, and rogue states amongst the stars just as our conflicts on Earth have.
All of this is encapsulated in a film that most people are going to consider boring. Ad Astra isn’t trying to be easy but it is trying to be deep. It’s reaching desperately to answer life’s most basic and haunting questions in a post-Christian world and that journey is immensely compelling. Understand what you’re getting into and it may very well become one of your favorite movies of 2019 like it is for me!
+ Spectacular Script + Complex Humanistic Themes + Great Central Performance by Brad Pitt
- Limited Audience Appeal - Slow Pace
The Bottom Line
Ad Astra is a cinematic masterpiece but one that will definitely alienate some audiences looking for something easier to disgest.