September 25, 2019 8:00 pm

Ad Astra Inspires Us to Keep Looking Up (SPOILERS)

SPOILER WARNING: This review contains numerous spoilers for the film AD ASTRA. If you have not seen the film and don’t want major plot points to be spoiled please stop reading. You’ve been warned!!!

Image of lunar rovers driving on the moon from the 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation movie Ad Astra.

Credit: Ad Astra and this image are ™ and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Another space movie, another trip to the good ol’ IMAX theatre. For those StarTalk fans living in Chicago, if you haven’t yet visited the 4-story screen located in the heart of Navy Pier, I highly recommend it. I had the pleasure of gracing this sacred arena for a screening of AD ASTRA – the new space epic starring Brad Pitt – and once again I experienced visual bliss at the hands of interstellar imagery on screen.

AD ASTRA follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) as he “embark[s] on a daring mission to Neptune to uncover the truth about his missing father and a mysterious power surge that threatens the stability of the universe.”

James Gray’s previous film, THE LOST CITY OF Z, was a marvelous dive into the golden age of 20th century exploration where English explorers were trying their darndest to chart the previously uncharted regions of the Amazon. A film of epic proportions, Gray managed to capture the vivid, dangerous, toxic jungle on 35mm film creating a romantic yet honest exploration of what it was like to search for the unknown. So, the next logical step had to be space, right?

Right. And Gray does not disappoint. The film has more in common with the likes of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and BLADE RUNNER than it does with the more recent, high-octane action thrillers you might expect. Yes, there is a “car chase” on the Moon. But, it’s handled with elegance and terror. Ever wonder how terrifying it would be to be in a lunar shootout where you can’t hear the bullets coming towards you? AD ASTRA gives you a front seat to that wartime nightmare.

What I really enjoyed about the film are the assumptions it takes about the future of space travel. The spaceport on the Moon feels like nothing more than an airport, even equipped with a Hudson News. We have bases on Mars, ferrying ships deeper into the solar system. Astronauts regularly do maintenance on towering space satellites that shoot up from the Earth’s surface. And, the harsh realities of human emotion are never lost in the “near-future” world being set up. People are still lonely, lost, and hard to understand.

Besides a brief encounter with a primate and a bit part from Donald Sutherland that felt unnecessary, AD ASTRA works and works well. I would’ve liked to see the photography take more advantage of the IMAX format but because it was shot on 35mm and not 65mm or 70mm, you’re not getting the visual depth you would get from shooting natively in the larger prints. However, for what it lacks in visuals (and it’s visually stunning, I’m just a junkie for large-format screening experiences) it makes up for in performance and storytelling. A la, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the film is not afraid to shy away from the complicated, existential, and cold nature of space and space travel. It’s not afraid to leave questions, feelings, and ideas unanswered. It depicts space travel as all first-hand accounts make it seem: dangerous, delicate, and not easy.

But what I liked most was the underlying humanistic themes. When Roy eventually finds his father, who was sent on a mission to Neptune to send signals into the universe hoping for extraterrestrial life, it’s revealed that these signals were sent but nothing came back. We are, indeed, alone in this universe. Now, in real life, it’s understood by the scientific community that it’s more likely we are not alone than it is likely that we are alone. But the film uses this notion in a way that drives home the main point. We are in this together. We must look out for one another because we’re all we’ve got. A useful reminder for current times where we face the dangers of a world that seems like it’s slipping right through our fingertips.

So, would I recommend it? Yes. But don’t expect something like the wild ride of GRAVITY or the operatic family drama of INTERSTELLAR. Prepare for a slow, inquisitive burn, but a burn well worth the time. Because when you leave the theater you might not have the answers you want. But that’s fine, because new questions will already be starting to form.

AD ASTRA is currently playing in theaters.

See you in the theater!
-Ian Mullen