Strange disasters seem to have something to do with a long lost mission to find alien life, led by H Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). So his son Roy (Pitt) sets out to look for him—but finds an extended metaphor for loneliness and fear of intimacy.
The aesthetic attention to detail pays off, with unsettling visions of familiar objects in unfamiliar combinations.
We see space modules stacked up to form a skyscraper. Air strikes on the airless lunar surface. And a poster for a crisis counselling hotline in a Martian base.
This dresses the stage for Pitt to show off. His eyes do half the acting, his never-raised voice much of the rest.
Jones and Donald Sutherland also bring impressive performances.
It’s a shame this is undermined by voiceovers, tacked on at studio bosses’ insistence, spelling out the film’s message with the subtlety of a laser cannon.
But this is an embarrassingly male film. The most prominent female role sees Liv Tyler reprise her role from Armageddon as the woman the spacemen leave behind.
Ruth Negga brings a quiet intensity to her brief appearance as an orphaned administrator. Her anger has to stand in for all the people damaged by the McBride men’s struggle.
Ad Astra has been compared to Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness and its sort-of adaptation Apocalypse Now.
These deal with the search for “one of our own” gone rogue far from home. But they do so politically, exposing how colonialist wars debased the society that perpetrated them.
Ad Astra acknowledges environmental destruction and war only to strip away this big picture and focus on the neuroses of lonely men.
In an age of rampant social isolation and mental distress, perhaps that’s political too. But then, did we really need another film that wallows in sympathy for sad, angry, white males while sidelining those who they hurt?
The title hints at Gray’s intentions. Air forces and space agencies often use a Latin motto derived from the Roman poet Virgil. Through hardship to the stars—in other words, the hardest journeys bring the greatest rewards. In this case the richest reward is coming home.