After a series of electrical storms threaten the Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is given a mission to try and contact the possible cause of the disaster. The source of the electromagnetic interference that is threatening humanity is a decaying cache of anti-matter, one attached to the missing space ship of Roy’s legendary long lost father (Tommy Lee Jones). However the elder McBride may still be alive, and Roy sets off on a quest to reconnect with his father, one that takes him to the frontiers of humanity’s expansion into space, and beyond.
Drawing upon Apocalypse Now as much as 2001: A Space Odyssey for inspiration, Ad Astra weaves a narrative of colonialism into this tale of space exploration. As such that wonder of discovery is deliberately blunted, the solar system becomes another resource for humanity to expand into, to exploit, and to reshape in its image. Roy McBride’s voyage is an almost surreal trip through this landscape (stellarscape?) revealing all we have brought with us – war, exploitation, greed, cruelty, bureaucracy, and hopelessness.
All of which sounds remarkably bleak.
Ad Astra isn’t this. It’s an individual voyage, and despite the deliberately flat affect of Pitt’s performance (and the over reliance on voice over narration), it is one of personal discovery and possible hope, as he confronts his past to work towards his future. It’s as much about Roy breaking through his own compartmentalisation to survive, as he examines his relationship with his father, and how that has effected his life and the major decisions he has taken throughout.
It’s a near-future which Ad Astra brings to life in stunning detail, even if it is grim, in its realistic matter-of-fact presentation. The voyage to the moon is an everyday airplane trip, Mars is a dirty frontier town, you must pass a brief computerised test before you are deemed fit to fly – the wondrous is made into the mundane. Yet the details are impressively rendered, and immaculately conceived. It is a world that is believable, from the blue ring glow of the ion thrusters (similar to the ones that are currently laying on the test bench at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), to the graffiti tag on Mars.
A contemplative work of hard science fiction that examines who we are, both as individuals, and as a society. Ad Astra may not awe cinema goers with laser fights and space battles, but it is a film that is impressive in its detail and scope, and one that will linger with you afterwards.