To the Stars through a Difficult Viewing

Ad Astra Per Aspera – Latin for ‘to the stars through difficulties’ – is the official motto of the state of Kansas and the South African Air Force, and is widely used among many other governments, organizations, and universities, as well as being referenced in music, literature, and popular culture. It’s almost surprising that it has taken this long for a science fiction film about space exploration to reference this well-known phrase in its title. I was first made aware of the film Ad Astra while watching baseball on TV, as a trailer for the film played during the commercial break. A major Hollywood production about a space adventure starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones? And it isn’t an adaptation of a comic book or part of a decades-old franchise? I just had to see it for myself.

Then I left the theater, and it took me a while to put my finger on why, exactly, I didn’t like this movie.

At first glance, I should love it. Ad Astra is a work of “hard sci-fi”, a sub-genre I really enjoy that focuses on the “science” part of science fiction with super-realistic and grounded predictions of future technology and actual physics. Think movies like The Martian or Gravity. Ad Astra attempts to imagine what a future where humanity has colonized the moon and Mars would actually look like given the state of current technology and global politics. It stars two very good actors who are giving excellent performances. It has an excellent premise: astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) learns that his long-lost father (Jones) may still be alive at the edge of the solar system, conducting a deep-space experiment that threatens to wipe out all life on Earth. It’s a premise that has built-in emotional tension and a mystery you want to see the hero solve.

I also have to complement the film on its attitude toward exposition. All too often, sci-fi and fantasy stories have to explain to the audience the background for what’s happening through either a ton of awkward narration or the inclusion of an audience-point-of-view “fish out of water” character who has to have everything explained to him or her. Ad Astra eschews that. Instead, it takes a “show, don’t tell” approach to world-building, trusting the audience to be smart enough to put the pieces together. All the characters we follow live in this world, and treat it as everyday and normal. The futuristic and fantastical elements of this world that we see are exposed to the audience through the characters’ mundane interactions with these elements. It’s a challenge to do this type of exposition well, and Ad Astra definitely succeeds.

Yet for all this film has going for it, I can’t help but feel it is constantly undercutting itself. The biggest piece of this is the direction. The cinematography and style of a hard sci-fi film should feel just as grounded and real as its setting, like a PBS documentary. Instead, director James Gray (The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z) decided to go for a super-stylized, surreal, dreamlike look and feel for his movie. This film is super-artsy, with odd cuts, fancy fades between scenes, bizarre lighting choices, and lots of Dutch angles, to the point where it becomes quite distracting and you get the impression he was trying too hard. Even worse, it was apparently decided at some point along the way that we needed to constantly hear Roy McBride’s inner thoughts as he goes about his mission. It quickly gets very distracting.

That’s another thing I couldn’t enjoy about this movie: its hero. Our main character is a real jerk. On the surface, he looks and acts like a stoic, calm-under-pressure, competent astronaut, but as we hear practically everything he’s thinking, we can see that he sees himself as far superior to all the idiot normals around him and doesn’t really like or trust anyone. Admittedly, this is just a personal preference of mine, but I want to like the protagonist of a movie I’m watching. I want to root for the hero, and I can’t do that if the hero is a terrible person.

Lastly, the film has a few plot twists that seem very contrived and convenient. Sure, the film knows how to world-build when it comes to technology and society, but when it comes to the actual interactions between the characters and events that advance the story, the writing is just weak. It feels like they were more interested in forcing the film to move on to the next plot point than letting the characters get there naturally. Not only that, but some decisions that the characters make during this film’s runtime just seem downright stupid.

I don’t hate Ad Astra, and there are parts of it that I genuinely like. Unfortunately, its flaws don’t outweigh its strengths to me. As much as it is disappointing for me to do so, I have to give it 4 out of 10.