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Film review: Ad Astra

20 September 2019

Stephen Brown reviews a film about more than journeying into space


Fox films

Brad Pitt as Roy McBride in Ad Astra, on current release

Brad Pitt as Roy McBride in Ad Astra, on current release

THE title of the film Ad Astra (Cert. 12A) — Latin for “To the stars” — could be expanded to Per ardua ad astra — “Through hardships to the stars”. There would be no worthwhile plot without hardship, albeit before a final resolution.

In some future period, Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, a middle-aged autistic technician. Reaching for the skies remains a matter of high priority. Huge telescopes are trying to detect life elsewhere. Swept off his feet by an extraterrestrial power burst, Roy is enlisted as an astronaut.

His father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) was one, lost in space many years ago. The blast that Roy experiences could be a signal from his old man that there is life out there, even if not as we know it; and so the celestial journey begins.

The way in which autism is portrayed here isn’t very helpful: Pitt comes over as an automaton. With emotional intelligence at a premium, the audience’s hope must be that there is some other kind in the great blue yonder.

There is the hope that hearing his father’s voice will transform Roy. Love, after all, changes everything. To boldly go further with narrative spoilers would be unethical; but flying to the moon and playing among the stars isn’t what this or any other science-fiction film is really about.

Ad Astra isn’t 2019: A Space Odyssey — no updating of Kubrick’s classic in which a black obelisk signified “God”, “aliens”, or whatever people wanted it to. But the director of Ad Astra, James Gray, acknowledges the influence of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1959 comic book The Sirens of Titan, “where man flung himself outward into space only to find emptiness, a total void of no meaning. The true unknown was the human soul.” By making Roy a tabula rasa, he has no spiritual agenda. Is there anyone out there, the audience wonders. When we seek that which passes all understanding, are we doing more than listening to echoes of ourselves?

So, when Roy hears his father’s voice, we, like him, remain sceptical about whether this is a trick of audio technology. Pitt’s character recognises human limitations and lack of control in a universe of awe and wonder. The film is not anti-science, but recognises how little humans know.

Ad Astra is about what all heavenward missions are about: a quest to transcend meaningless infinity. But it also about acknowledging human yearning — that seeking after the Father which has been humanity’s goal throughout the ages. This may be a god of many names, but, at base, the quest is for our true and everlasting home. Here is a film that, without seeming to buy into any collective belief system, urges us to explore a landscape of the soul and see what we find there.

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