Sending your characters to space has a way of letting you explore deep and complex themes in a way that almost no other location can. Recent examples include The Martian being a testament to perseverance in the face of isolation and adversity, Interstellar, which is about the ways that love – no matter its form – transcends everything physical that we know, and Blade Runner 2049, which is about what it actually means to be human. Similarly, James Gray’s Ad Astra creates a confluence of many deep and spiritual ideas as Roy McNeil (Brad Pitt) travels from earth, to the moon, to Mars, and beyond to find his astronaut father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).
Space is the perfect setting for this kind of story. Clifford could be lost in the jungle or at the bottom of the ocean, but to place him in space forces Roy to face isolation, which is often the source of many philosophical and spiritual musings. The foremost idea on Roy’s mind is his concept of his father, who left on a lifelong space expedition when Roy was 16.
Does he actually know his father?
What has he inherited from his father that he does not know about?
Has his father gone crazy, or was he always off the rails?
Is he destined to repeat his father’s sins?
Roy has cut himself off from everything except for his work as an astronaut. In a time when going to the moon can be the equivalent of a family vacation to Disney World, Roy laments the spread of consumerism. It’s just a symptom of a larger issue – people don’t have a drive for knowledge. They’re complacent where they are.
This film may be the most immaculately-shot movie this year. Hoyte Van Hoytema not only delivers absolutely stunning imagery, but he fills them with the thought and meaning that the film is oozing with. Most notably, there is a nearly unbreakable bond between father and son. Roy struggles with this the entire film. Even as he learns unsavory new information about the evolution of his father’s character, he is still drawn towards his mission, and of course drawn to his father. There is a yearning to want to believe in natural good – he wants to believe his father is the hero he’s always remembered him as.
Pitt brings this to life in a crushingly subdued manner. Devoid of all swagger and charm that makes Brad Pitt Brad Pitt, he is brings out so much thoughtfulness in his eyes alone. It’s the yearning for a truth that he thought he once knew that drives him so far from his home on earth, and it’s the solitude that helps him to see the truth as it really is. If it weren’t for another standout performance in a top-of-the-line director’s film earlier this year, Ad Astra would certainly be Pitt’s ticket to his first Academy Award.
But after the movie ends and you can reflect on it as a whole, it becomes obvious how deeply spiritual it is. This is a world that shows an Applebee’s on the moon in a matter-of-fact way, there is still beauty to be found. Even through all the yearning for more – something greater than ourselves that we can grab onto, all we need to do is look right in front of us and we will understand the love and beauty that is everywhere.