“Ad astra,” the new film by James Gray, is more meditation than story. The title (one half of the latin phrase “per aspera ad astra” or “through hardships to the stars”) is apt given the amount of time travel and the fascinating hardware that allows it, though the tale meanders, causing some confusion. With various stellar transportation modes, it takes us from one distant planet to the next without a clear mission statement. Basically, the quest unfurling in those galaxies and constellations is the never-ending one of a son reclaiming his father’s love or at least attempting to glean an understanding of why he didn’t have it in the first place. Briefly, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent on a mission to Neptune where it is suspected that his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary space hero, disappeared some thirty years ago. The intel agencies now know that it was apparently by choice and that he passed himself off for dead in order to hatch some nefarious plot that even now submits earth to dangerous surges certain to wreak havoc with our civilization if not stopped. They seem to believe that the son will make the father see reason. The thing is, as a child, the younger McBride worshipped his father and, believing him dead, has since worshipped his memory. So, realizing that this father abandoned him and never looked back is not easy to digest. How much of this back story turned him into this taciturn man whose heartbeat never rises above 80 and whose life on earth is as much a mess as that of many men his age, what with divorce, etc. is not delved into. The psychological aspect remains vague, as does the father’s plans for humanity, of which we know they are evil but to what extent and what brought them to fruition is not defined either. But then, this is a man’s movie, with heroes as laconic as in a western, so we don’t learn much about project and motive.
What makes “ad astra” stand out is the vision of the future. At the unspecified date in which the film takes place, planets, stars and distant worlds are, if not quite a jaunt away, explored and familiar enough. It is now as common for various vessels to stop on Mars on their way to Neptune or an even more distant destination as it is for the regular American flight to refuel at whatever location it has landed in. Routes can be as long as several million miles and trips take years, but who’s counting? Set to an appropriately cosmic musical score by Max Richter, “ad astra” invites us to just go and revel in being an infinitesimal part of our extraordinary universe.
Saïdeh Pakravan is our France-based contributor. She is a film historian and the author of “100 Years of Must-See Movies,” a Screen Comment publication. She pens political and social critique on her blog, The Counter Argument.