“Ad Astra”: Exploring What Humanity Means in Outer Space

James Gray’s New Film Follows Brad Pitt on Odyssey Through the Stars


Augie Oppenheimer

Brad Pitt portrayed an isolated astronaut in the film Ad Astra

Andrew Mello, News Editor

Rating: 5/5 Falcons

There is an innate desire to be gratified watching Ad Astra, or any film dealing with the cold reaches of space. People are born curious, and for most who stare at the night sky, it’s hard not to wonder about what sits right above us. Ad Astra knows not to answer our questions with some poor or unconvincing alien, but instead with dark, lonely reality. There’s nothing left to doubt in the futuristic film because the fate it predicts is the one we live in today.

The inciting incident of the film sees Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a major in the U.S. Space Command, on Earth when an unknown power surge sweeps through the solar system, nearly killing him. McBride is saved only by his cool head and inability to feel something as human as panic. As soon as McBride has recuperated, his superiors task him with putting an end to the cause, believed to be the doing of Roy’s presumed-dead father. Viewed on earth as a selfless explorer, McBride’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), disappeared with his crew decades ago on a voyage to discover intelligent life. On the search for his literal creator, the younger McBride finds himself hurtling across the galaxy, only to find the answers he was too afraid to accept from the beginning. 

From the first words of the film, “In the near future,” director James Gray’s foretelling of our future is bleak to say the least, scariest only in its plausibility. This humanity of the future may have brought our species to Mars, yet remains unable to escape themselves. While a society has been established on the moon, it becomes no different than the one left on Earth. McBride flies commercially to the moon, boarding no differently than you would at any terminal today. Made into a tourist trap, the moon base closely resembles a modern airport, built to accommodate our vices of consumerism, outfitted with Subway sandwich shops and other cheap reminders of home. Here, McBride is left isolated as the only one disillusioned with his surroundings. Even piracy turns much of the moon’s cratered surface into an uninhabitable war zone as residents fend for resources. His line “We are world eaters” rang out especially poignant, acknowledging that we have not evolved out of our home planet, but simply inserted ourselves elsewhere. The film knows why we need to explore, but more importantly, what we’re escaping.

I was wowed by every presentation of scale in Gray’s idea of outer space.

While I was wowed by every presentation of scale in Gray’s portrayal of outer space, the most impressive feat of this film is that it is from McBride’s perspective, keeping the audience’s experience grounded, and more importantly, human. McBride himself is a blank slate, and as a result, the perfect military man. Cautious to confide in anything but a machine, McBride is taken aback by the simple question of “How are you?” retorting, “Is this part of the psychological evaluation?” Alienated from his contemporaries and himself, McBride could seem apathetic about the world around him, but Pitt’s performance allows us to know the reasons for his disconnect, and makes his few moments of outburst that much more impactful. Roy McBride is a man who only grows as a protagonist from the moment you meet him, as he plummets to Earth. 

In between the blockbuster successes of action heroes and visual flash, the quiet introspection of Ad Astra is a dying breed. Here is a film that believes in its audience to take things at more than face value, demanding a thoughtful inspection and repeat viewings. What you will find is the lens used to depict life as McBride knows it is less a portal into his world and more so a mirror held up to our own.

This piece also appears in our October 2019 print edition.