Literary / Film review: Ad Astra
I feel that Ad Astra, as a movie which came out roughly the same time as Joker, would inevitably be overshadowed by it, especially in the country where I live, where many people would probably not have the appetite for seeing two movies in one week. While both offer a fascinating look into the interior development of the main characters, Ad Astra, strangely, however, is the one movie that made me feel the impulse to write a review on it after watching it. (My apologies for being more comfortable as a literary critic than a movie critic, and so my reviews will invariably deal more with themes and characters than cinematic techniques.)
Perhaps this is because I feel that Joker is an easier-to-understand movie than Joker. And I often feel the need to deepen my understanding of a film through writing about it.
As some have noted, As Astra is an “emotional odyssey” memorable for its “unique blend of action and introspection”. Set during most of its watch time in the bleak, harsh and isolating outer space, it is perhaps not a movie that asks many questions, like Joker is, but I think it is memorable for what it makes you feel.
While many will remark that there are not as many actions as one might expect and the pacing might have been slower than many would have liked it to be, the movie manages to hold my attention throughout because of the suspense and the intrigue that it presents. I would say the pacing, as it is, allows me to fully be fully immersed in the frame of mind of the protagonist. The suspense and the intrigue don’t only come from our wondering whether Major Roy McBride, the main character, an astronaut who is travelling to Neptune to locate and possibly bring back his father, will make it to this distant planet or what dangers are ahead of him. They also come from how his emotional conflicts are going to resolve. Brad Pitt, in this respect, should be applauded for a restrained but sensitive and down-to-earth performance. The Roy McBride he plays, being an exceptionally talented astronaut, is calm but never lacking in emotions or bland. You can feel all those emotions, albeit repressed, lurking under the composed facade of the hero that Brad Pitt aptly plays — his anger at being abandoned, longing for the company of a long-absent father and guilt at not being able to be a loving husband. Will he be able to remain composed and how long will it take before he breaks down in emotions? Will loneliness and pain finally have the better of him and take over his rationality and composure? Although he had been impressively and almost unbelievably calm throughout on a voyage that offers no lack of thrills and surprises, one cannot help wondering when there might come a point when the unforgiving space and the solitude he suffers might stretch him too thin.
And that is not all that which makes our hero relatable, human and deserving of sympathy. There’s also the themes of authoritarianism and hypocrisy (which might feel familiar as they can also be found in preceding sci-fi films such as Martian and arguably 2001 Space Odyssey). There’s the hypocrisy of those who are in positions of authority as they purposefully portray Roy’s father as a hero without telling everyone what he truly is. While McBride had to undertake frequent psychological assessments, those assessments seem to be in place not for his wellbeing but rather to keep him under constant surveillance and determine his aptitude to continue to engage in space travel. Although undoubtedly gifted with exceptional talent as an astronaut, his desire to travel or lack thereof is irrelevant when the authority decides whether to send him on a mission. As McBride remarked, he was no more than a tool “being used” by SpaceCom, the equivalent of NASA in the film. Although the audience has been instilled with the expectations that Roy will face difficult choices on his way to Neptune and on his mission to “dealing with his father”, the pathos of the movie lies in the fact that perhaps Roy, after all, doesn’t have much of a choice at all and it looks like, despite his talent, his fate is largely dictated by circumstances or even luck. All the members of his crew died because of his sudden intrusion into the ship when he decided to get on board to get to his father, defying commands, and he had to intervene when the captain of a ship failed to land just to make sure he would survive. He had to go all the way to Neptune because his father insisted on finding extraterrestrial intelligence in outer space. And because he felt compelled to live up to his father’s expectations, make him proud and become an astronaut, his wife had no choice but to bear with an estranged marriage.
Interestingly, the theme of faith lingers despite the very advanced and mature space exploration technology which will be plausible if the film is set in the near future, which it is. Prayers are made invariably after people die and Roy McBride’s father, Clifford McBridge clings onto an almost fanatical belief that artificial intelligence exists in outer space and he’d rather die than accept the truth that science says it doesn’t. All these seem to point at the conclusion that all characters, no matter how apparently rational and scientifically literate they are, feel the need to cling on to some sort of faith in life.