I saw Ad Astra last weekend, 3 weeks after its American release. It’s a beautifully acted and produced science fiction movie, one that might—eventually—become a renowned production in SF circles. But right now, it’s being ignored by most of the SF market… and after seeing it myself, I immediately understood why most popular reviews were tepid to outright cold about this movie, and why most moviegoers have stayed away from it. Unfortunately, it’s a reception that this movie doesn’t deserve, and the reasons behind it are so ironic that it’s hard for me to decide whether to laugh or cry about it.
Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut renowned in Space Command for maintaining his detachment and utter calm to even the most extreme goings-on around him at all times, but clearly unable to feel for anything or anyone (including his estranged wife). He is also the son of a famous astronaut, Clifford McBride, who was lost in outer space years ago, on a mission to search for life in the cosmos. But one day Roy is told his father is not dead, but for some reason causing incredible, potentially deadly energy surges from the orbit of Neptune that now threaten the Earth. Roy is sent to try to talk his father down and stop the energy surges.
(Spoilers follow, skip ahead)
Most of Roy’s journey is spent in much the same way his personal life progresses: He is alone, dedicated single-mindedly to his mission to reach his father. Along the way, Roy finds himself in numerous hazardous scrapes; death seems to follow him, often at his own hands… but he shoulders on with his unerring calm. Before he reaches his father, he discovers that Clifford was equally single-minded about his mission to find alien life, intentionally killing his crew to prevent them from aborting his mission.
When he finally reaches Clifford, Roy realizes how far gone his father is: Still completely alone, no thoughts other than the mission; not even regrets for what he’d done to abandon his wife and son, or kill his resistant crew, to remain out there. Clifford ultimately cannot accept the idea of destroying his station, even though he knows it is the cause of the deadly surges, because that would mean ending his mission and returning to an Earth that no longer interests him. In the end, Roy must leave his father behind and return to Earth (the destruction of the station being almost an afterthought in the story at this point), but in the process comes to a realization that will change his life.
Is it that Clifford managed to discover life in the cosmos? No; the movie draws short of actually saying that there’s no life out there, but it’s clear that Clifford failed at finding any; and the very thought of humans being alone in the universe has left Clifford almost catatonic in grief.
However, Roy manages to get a look at the sensory readings his father has collected from planets throughout the cosmos, and realizes what Clifford has missed: That after decades of extensive scanning, he has built up an incredible wealth of scientific data on worlds throughout the cosmos, discoveries no other man has achieved. Ironically, Clifford’s obsession with the search for life had blinded him to his other accomplishments… as well as to the people around him, including the entreaties of his son.
And Roy realizes how much his life has reflected that of his father, shutting out his wife, making no friends or connections, and ending up isolated through his own actions. At the end, Roy comes to understand how precious those relationships with others are, and decides to reconnect with his wife, to make connections and appreciate what he has.
When Ad Astra was released, popular critics and science fiction fans immediately criticized the movie for being downbeat and depressing, for lacking the excitement typical of sci-fi, for “ruining” a space movie. It was not Star Wars or Star Trek. There were no alien miracles or death stars or firefights. So-called sci-fi fans shunned the movie because there was no fun. And that was their mistake.
Much like Stanislaw Lem’s classic Solaris, another psychological SF drama, Ad Astra contains many of the familiar external trappings of sci-fi, but is really about looking inward, into Roy’s psyche, not outward. And that’s the real irony of Ad Astra: That critics and the public—as myopically intent in expecting aliens, firefights and unambiguous happy endings out of science fiction movies as Roy McBride was in accomplishing his mission—also failed to see the real point of the story; that Ad Astra is not a movie about seeking alien life or stopping outer space threats, it’s a movie about a man discovering his own disastrous disconnection with human life.
Eventually, scientists and engineers will stop criticizing the physical errors of this story (there are some), fans will stop discussing its action sequences (largely gratuitous), and critics will stop berating it for not being what sci-fi fans expect (it’s not); and they’ll all realize this is a rare example of an intelligent and important science fiction film… not a story about people using space fighters and futuristic toys to fight aliens or bad guys… but about people who unfortunately allow the pursuit of science to obscure their humanity, and the dire consequences of that. Unfortunately, it may take time for the science fiction world to catch on to what they’ve missed.
On that day, I hope to be there to say: “Told you so.”