There is a certain loneliness that is imbued in great outer space movies. The feeling is inevitable, for what is more isolating than floating around in a great big void? Of course, the high benchmark of conveying this feeling is in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film as inscrutable and mysterious as a towering black monolith. Then, there is James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” a film that, unlike many others of its ilk, manages to graze the dizzying heights of Kubrick’s masterpiece. While “2001” views the vast emptiness of space on a macro level, using the inherent grandiosity of interstellar travel to dwarf its human characters, Gray’s film uses this aloneness as a chance to look inward. For, when surrounded by nothing but emptiness, what else is there to ponder but oneself?
Unlike many of other “2001” imitators, Gray’s film actually borrows heavily from the film’s structure. Set up more like an episodic road movie than a cohesive narrative, “Ad Astra” decides to take us down a methodical rabbit hole, eschewing a traditional cause and effect story to instead take us on a tour of the cosmos. Like its protagonist, the tone of the story feels a tad detached, refusing to let us be fully emotionally connected until (crucially) the heart-stopping climax. But that is all by design. Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is a distant, cold man with few personal attachments. He has built a notoriety for having a resting pulse that has never risen above 80bpm. This is, he is not a particularly emotional man. And, as a result, he is not an easy protagonist to connect with. In fact, much of the arc of the film revolves around us working towards caring about him, towards us understanding what exactly makes him tick. And it is why the suddenly emotional third act is able to have such an impact. It’s a sudden burst of catharsis erupting from a barely suppressed geyser.
Pitt’s performance is bravely committed. He refuses his character any sort of emotional understanding of his mental state. He isn’t self serious or stoic. Instead, he is simply calm and disconnected. His demeanor almost seems flippant, not quite in a humorous manner, but in a way that implies that none of the events stick, that everything rolls off him like the tide. In fact, it is only through voiceover where his inner state is ever touched upon. Beautifully written and performed, it reflects the philosophical musings of “Apocalypse Now” and “Tree of Life,” always being tied to a specific philosophy without ever falling off the deep end of pretension and exposition.
But what exactly is the philosophy of “Ad Astra”? There is its basic idea, one that human connection is important. It’s a good idea, worthy of discussion, but it hardly contains that much depth and doesn’t really justify its cosmic setting. No, I believe that “Ad Astra” is, ultimately, about loneliness, and how that can be just as empowering as it can be terrifying. There is a line that has stuck with me ever since: “we’re all we got”. This is said in response to a failed mission to contact alien life, but it could work just as well on an interpersonal level. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous line: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”. If we truly are alone in this universe, that can be just as empowering as it is scary. For if we only can rely on each other, that means that we are given the opportunity for a true connection. We’re all we got.