Ad Astra

 

            “Ad Astra” is Latin for “To the Stars.”  This is a sci-fi movie set in “the near future,” but that may be a bit optimistic.  The Space Agency routinely runs shuttles to the Moon.  From there, you can catch a spaceship all the way to Mars, our farthest outpost.  Although, almost comically, you may have to dodge the banditos that are still striving to control the various independent mines on the Moon.  All that technology, and we still are overrun with gangs.

            Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the veteran astronaut sent on a top secret mission.  It seems that 30 years ago, the Space Agency sent out a team of explorers led by Roy's father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).  They thought the whole expedition had perished, but lately they've been receiving signals, which may indicate that Clifford McBride is still alive.  Of course Roy is intrigued.  He's also a little angry, since his father abandoned him when he was 16 to go explore the galaxy, and never returned.  (Let's see, that would make Roy about 46, which is about a decade on the sunny side of a charitable rendering of Mr. Pitt's age.  But then, he's the Executive Producer, so he gets to call those shots.)  The Space Agency isn't just curious about what happened to their “Lima Project,” but they've also been experiencing some troublesome electrical surges that they think may be coming from that incredibly distant Neptune station.

            The sci-fi movie technology is fun to watch, because it seems so realistic. However, it's also realistic to grapple with the incredible isolation and loneliness of space crews, not to mention the physically taxing demands of zero gravity habitations.  Major McBride seems to find trouble wherever he goes.  First, it's a pilot who insists on a detour to check out a distress signal from a Norwegian scientific expedition.  Curiosity killed the captain.  Then, the co-pilot gets the jitters when he has to do a manual landing, and our intrepid Major McBride has to take over.  He's always calm in an emergency, and even his heart rate never spikes.

            And yet he must subject himself to constant psychological evaluations, which he dutifully records in a rambling monologue, then awaits audio confirmation that his review has been approved.  It's nice to know they've thought about these things, but it would've been even nicer to know what their criteria might be.  Major McBride runs into bureaucratic obfuscation, but that doesn't bother him nearly as much as his memory of neglecting his ex-wife.  He fears he may be more like his father than he's willing to admit.

            Yes, the space walk sequences are probably not realistic, but they're intriguing.  We all know that father and son are going to eventually re-connect, but we don't know how well that will go, and if it will result in any answers about the dangerous electrical surges.  We also want to know if there's any other intelligent life out there, but at the end, Major McBride assures us that it's just us and God, which is about as theological as any movie gets.

            The “happily ever after” is Roy realizing, after much isolation, that he actually misses human interaction, proving to himself that he's not as much as a misanthrope as he thought.  And just for a hint of romance at the end, who wouldn't want to see a potential reunion with the ex (Liv Tyler), who's apparently been waiting around patiently for her moonstruck hero to literally come back down to Earth?

            It's very cerebral, with lots of blank spaces for the viewer to occupy.  It's certainly not chatty.  But it is a kind of loner's adventure, like a hunter stalking big game, and enjoying all that alone time.  And sometimes the point is not the destination, but the journey.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association