Even when he’s free-falling to Earth from the upper reaches of the atmosphere, Roy McBride’s heart rate doesn’t increase above eighty beats per minute. Throughout this beautifully rendered but emotionally stagnant space drama, it’s hard to imagine that the audience’s will, either, as the characters float through a well-meaning but tired vacuum of space clichés and racially suspect white saviour psychology.
Roy (Brad Pitt) is unable to feel; unable to love; clinically depressed. Yet the decorated astronaut passes every one of his regular psych evaluations. As Ad Astra deep dives into Roy’s consciousness, the film offers a damning indictment of our cultural ambivalence toward men’s mental health and a future that relies on machines to monitor human wellbeing. It’s a speculative near future in which the heavily corporatized Earth has extra-terrestrial colonies fighting to the death for resources. When Earth-threatening energy flares emanate from Neptune, the last known location of Roy’s father on an ill-fated mission to look for alien life, Roy is sent to help track down Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee-Jones). What follows is not so much a film about looking for life beyond the solar system, but rather trying to find some sign of humanity within it.
As Roy attempts to reach his father, Ad Astra successfully deploys every conceivable trope of the epic space adventure. It plays with notions of proximity and distance. There are a series of increasingly cliched mishaps: something goes wrong at every stage of the mission, from a Mad-Max-style pirate attack leading to a space-buggy chase on the Moon, to a distress signal in deep space that sets the mission off course. There are also correspondingly improbable moments of self-preservation that smack of lazy storytelling devices rather than meaningful narrative developments. It would be remiss to give spoilers but suffice to say this is not a film that challenges generic convention. Everything you expect to happen does, and it would have made for a more interesting contemplation of humanity if the ending had come twenty minutes earlier.
That said, there are some brilliant aesthetic touches. References to science-fiction cinema abound, including the blood-red reactor of Total Recall, the spinning cinematography of Gravity, and the almost obligatory balletic corridor shots of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are gasp-inducing sequences on Mars, and while the star-scapes don’t reach the grandiose proportions of Interstellar, the film’s planetary aesthetics are something to behold. As he races toward a ship against the clock of the ignition countdown, a gold-sheened Roy swims in silhouette; he emerges in a bronze sunburst of water above the surface, where a shower of red-orange sparks rains from the rocket booster above his head. It is, quite simply, stunning. The score, too, is conventional yet fraught with epic sci-fi drama, rippling with synthy uncertainty one moment and abandoning us to abject silence the next. The costume design is effective, too, with some beautifully composed shots bouncing off the reflective surfaces of gold-tinted spacesuit visors. Even the editing is noteworthy, with a sequence of solitary madness evoking the sinister dreamscapes of Meshes of the Afternoon.
Brad Pitt is on career-high form throughout, conveying worlds of suppressed feeling with one twitch of the tired, sagging folds of skin beneath his eyes. Dejected and despairing, his character fits the pattern of the psychologically tormented space-traveller that populates films like Moon, Gravity and First Man – an angstonaut, if you will. Roy and his fellow angstonauts are not invested in space exploration so much as traversing the limits of their damaged or grieving psyches. Roy does so by compartmentalising his rage and feelings of isolation just as he despatches bodies and bunkers from spaceships and deletes or cancels his feelings in computer-recorded logs. He is so emotionally detached that one wonders how he remains rooted to the ground without some physical tether.
However - and there’s a big however - while men’s mental health is an important topic that cinema can and should address more often, Ad Astra does little to challenge the toxic masculinity that underpins Roy’s depression. Overblown metaphors ring hollow: Roy doesn’t just have to go to the end of the Earth to find his feelings, he has to go all the way to Neptune. Meanwhile Clifford (the chilling demagogue father) must learn the hard way that abandoning humanity leaves you with nothing. It’s hardly rocket science. And in the end Roy’s shot at redemption comes from shouldering the white man’s burden: he risks his life to avenge black characters. Thus, somehow, in that single action, he seeks to save himself by atoning for the sins of colonialism. But as a Major in the US military and armed with various weapons, his deadpan critiques of humans as ‘planet eaters’ are more vacuous than space itself, and merely serve to remind us of the hypocrisies of the coloniser mindset.
Consequently, the film asks bigger questions than it knows how to answer. And, as the body count of incidental black characters and fade-to-nothing background women rises, it’s hard to swallow the idea that it’s all necessary to save one poor white-man-with-daddy-issues from himself. Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler have so little to do besides propping up Pitt that it’s barely worth crediting them; the patriarchal hubris is as astonishing as the spectacular aesthetic. Ultimately, then, this is a film about the conceit of powerful white men who are the only ones that can fail to solve the problems they created in the first place. Like the Earth itself, that ‘big blue-green marble,’ Ad Astra has a glorious surface when viewed from a distance. Look at the details in closer proximity, though, and there are many unresolved conflicts in a story that doesn’t necessarily have so much to recommend it.