Bonds created by parent and child should, in a perfect world at least, be the one of the strongest things in existence.
But we don’t live in a perfect world alas, and all too frequently, what should a nourishing, uplifting and nurturing foundational relationship, instead fractures and breaks leaving the children particularly lost and bereft in a way they are usually too small to understand or articulate.
That is certainly the case in Ad Astra (to the stars) where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a consummately-accomplished all-star astronaut who for all his career success carries an enormously heavy burden – his father, H. Clifford McBride, the father of modern space exploration on near-future Earth, disappeared 16 years previously, after departing a decade before that, while he was commanding a deep-space mission to Neptune to search for extraterrestrial life.
Known as the Lima Project, the mission’s goal, once followed with a passion bordering on the ruthlessly obsessive, was to validate McBride senior’s fervently-held belief that we are not alone.
So consumed was he by this goal that he left behind his wife and child, effectively telling him they didn’t matter as much as his life’s work.
While Roy, a ferociously-taciturn man who is as emotionally locked down as they come – he speaks of the death of colleagues like he’s discussing the repair of a plumbing issue – lauds him publicly as a hero, he is privately-conflicted though he would never admit that and spends copious amount of time and emotional energy, keeping his rage and sadness hidden away from view, even his own.
By any measure he and his father, now presumed dead, are as fractured relationally as they come and yet he doesn’t hesitate for a second when Space Command, the space arm of the US Air Force, taps him for a mission to Mars where he’ll speak to his father via secure laser transmission in a bid to get him to stop power surges that are resulting in tens of thousands of deaths on Earth and which it is believed are emanating from Neptune, the Lima Project’s last known location.
But when on Mars, confronted by the task at hand, his hitherto rock solid emotional control begins to buckle and fray, and he begins to realise that keeping all that roiling emotion in check is next to near impossible and he needs to do something with it.
Quite what he does propels the narrative onward from that point and quite apart from the breathless journey through some stunning space scenery, we get an intimate compelling look at the damage that ripples when father and son part ways too early on with no ability to fix the gaping wounds that result.
It’s a mesmerising look at a harrowing issue that while deliberately interior – McBride’s inner monologue is powerfully delivered as a pensive, worldweary musing on life and the man wounds it exacts on us by Pitt at the top of his game – feels deeply expansive and immersive at the same time.
This exploration of father-son bonds, or near-ruinous lack thereof (Roy’s marriage to Eve, played by Liv Tyler, is in tatters, the result of the same emotional shutdown that has perversely seen him excel at his career), may sound like it makes for a fairly slow and deliberate film, and while that’s certainly true in the very best of ways, it is leavened by the narrative’s willingness to amp up the action and tension just when things need a little bit of kick in the proverbial.
Not that that’s because the film is dragging at any particular point.
While it’s contemplatively immersive through its length, sharing the same poetically-chilled sensibility of films like Solaris and Blade Runner, it never runs the risk, like some of these more meditative space films do, of disappearing up its own artistic proverbial.
In fact, Ad Astra, which makes some pithy observations about humanity’s innate ability to throw some serious spanners in the works of something as wondrous as space exploration and settlement – the moon, for instance, is being fought over by competing factions, leading to an inventive chase scene across its dunes which, while functioning as an action-oriented jolt to proceedings, also serves to underline that the more things change, the more they, lamentably, stay the same – balances the contemplative and the intensely emotional in such a masterful way that it will leave you gasping in admiration.
It is the perfect marriage of the interior and the exterior, a visually and narratively taut film that is sumptuously beautiful to look at, languorously and yet not stultifyingly paced, and yet awash in emotions so authentic and real that you marvel at how Roy has not broken and lost his emotional footing before the remarkably engaging events of the movie.
For all its action sequences and climactic final act which acts as the biggest and remote therapy session anyone anywhere has ever undergone, Ad Astra is essentially a deep dive into the aftermath of a father-son relationship and how one man’s nakedly destructive obsession profoundly and deleteriously affects the life of another (and potentially, the entire human race, making a personal issue far more universal in scope and consequence).
Pitt is exemplary, bringing first a steely resolve and then aching vulnerability and then a combination of the two to Roy, a man who wants so much from life, and on paper achieves it, but who is conspicuously ill-at-ease with himself – it’s hidden by his position in the military which rewards a removed, steely sense of self – and longs to enjoy what he has and be done with what he has not.
But that, of course, means dealing with his dad, and the mystery of whether he is behind the energy pulses debilitating large swathes of Earth, twin narrative foci that imbue the film with introspective and outward-facing elements that march exquisitely well in hand, enhanced by cinematography, courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema, so artistically-expressed that the film often feels like an emotionally-resonant work of art.
Ad Astra is sublimely brilliant – a poetic, immersively meditative film that packs a powerful but artfully executed punch, exploring the darkest parts of pain and loss against an immense spatial and emotional backdrop while offering a little redemptive hope, and some searing action, along the way.