Science fiction is a highly derivative and recognisable genre. This is one of its main pleasures – one sci-fi film can recall another and there is enjoyment to be found on recognising the intertextuality. Even when a film is not based on previous material, as is the case with Ad Astra, its antecedents are easy to spot. James Gray’s meditative space odyssey echoes 2001, Contact, Event Horizon, Gravity and The Martian, as well as historical dramas such as Apollo 13 and First Man. What it reminded this viewer of most, however, is Sunshine. Like Danny Boyle’s retina-scorching voyage through the great void, Ad Astra boasts awe-inspiring visuals, nerve-shredding tension and a misguided search for salvation. Much of the film’s power is conveyed through its intimacy with protagonist Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, mesmerising), a professional astronaut whose commitment to the job has largely isolated him from connections on Earth, especially with his wife Eve (a sadly underused Liv Tyler). When strange energy surges start causing havoc on Earth, and a mysterious message from Roy’s father, presumed lost astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), points to human events at the edge of the solar system, Roy embarks on his own odyssey, both into space and into himself.
Joining Roy on this journey is the audience, subject to awe and amazement as the protagonist would be if he were not so emotionally distant. Sequences are often visually and audibly expressed from within Roy’s helmet: sights are distant but dazzling while sounds are conveyed – often intermittently – through Roy’s radio. The narrative is constructed perceptually, as Roy’s memories of his father, of Eve, of his earlier missions, frequently punctuate the present with flashbacks reminiscent of Solaris, Interstellar and Arrival. Roy’s voiceover may sometimes grate but, while it tells the viewer much of what he is thinking, there is little expression of feeling. As a result, the film presents a very personal journey with a person who is hard to fathom. This dramatic choice could be alienating for the viewer that tries to engage with Roy, and could be read as autistic. Roy is insular, highly rational and emotionally restrained, and also displays little understanding of human emotion, which can be an autistic perspective. Thus his journey, cocooned within his spacesuit and the various crafts that he travels in, manifests his detachment and perhaps gives the audience a sense of what that detachment might feel like.
This conceit speaks to the best way to enjoy the film – as an experience rather than a character study. Marvel at the expanse of space; strain to catch the distorted radio transmissions; feel the terrifying freedom of zero gravity. Along the way, consider isolation and difficulties with human engagement, and how we might learn more about such engagement. The film also potentially critiques the sub-genre of space films, as women are largely pushed to the side while the white heteronormative male is charged with the important task of interplanetary excursions. But women and people of colour are nonetheless significant even in their reduced role, especially in Roy’s encounter with Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga) on Mars. Come the film’s resolution, there is a powerful message about our world and ourselves as a people, a message that also points to the problems with such male-centrism and a need for alternatives. Like many a space odyssey, Ad Astra is ultimately a film about our home and our world(s), and how different and precious these can appear when viewed from a distance.