The Thoughtful and Emotional Silence of Ad Astra
Ad Astra arrived and departed quietly, receiving its share of criticism and praise briefly before disappearing amongst the rest of the year’s filmography. Audiences were divided, critics were more appreciative, however, its importance for modern Hollywood was never fully realized.
Ad Astra tells the story of astronaut Roy McBride who discovers that his father, assumed dead after a doomed expedition, may still be alive. McBride embarks on journey to his father after it’s suspected his father may be responsible for fatal energy surges across the universe. On paper, this is a sci-fi adventure, in fact it would seem absurd for it to be any other genre. Yet, Ad Astra is far from it and while that seems bizarre, it’s precisely what makes this one of the best films of the year.
Ad Astra takes its time, not slow but thoughtful.
After the first few trailers, there was an instant comparison to Interstellar understandably so. The trailers gave us a glimpse of a film that certainly looked like Interstellar and it was perhaps these false expectations that damaged the movie’s reception among audiences. Ad Astra may look like Interstellar, but it is a vastly different feel. The visual style is where the parallels between the two films end. Interstellar was an encompassing and cerebral sci-fi epic that pushed the limits of visual storytelling, giving audiences a film that redefined perceptions of space and time. In other words, Interstellar was a scientific exploration, an approach which is completely justified in a science-fiction film.
Ad Astra is not concerned with the science, in fact a prominent criticism was the film’s ignorance and erroneous portrayal of the science behind space exploration. This criticism is clearly the result of audiences expecting Interstellar and is an entirely natural reaction. Audiences have been conditioned to expect action, horror or an intellectual experience with films set in space, Interstellar is not the only example, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Sunshine, Solaris, Alien, Gravity, the list is immense. The mystery of space, the endless darkness and the infinite nothingness make it the ideal setting for action, horror and a brain sprain. Yet, Ad Astra takes a wholly unique and unexpected approach that quite predictably put off audiences.
In the same way that Interstellar explores the intellectual depths of space travel, Ad Astra delves into the emotional depths. Ad Astra is at its core a film about love, hope and trust, concealed in plot about space exploration. The plot of the film is secondary, not irrelevant but by no means the driver of the story. Ad Astra is about character and the emotional struggle the human mind is put through in the expanse of space.
Brad Pitt is marvellous in his role as astronaut Roy McBride delivering two Oscar worthy performances this year alone. Pitt gives a subdued and subtle performance, completely disappearing into his character creating one of the most compelling protagonists in a film this year. Ad Astra is McBride’s story, the real plot of the film is his arc, it’s the story of the pursuit of purpose as he drifts in an infinity. McBride is emotionally torn; his father was his hero and he has to grapple with the possibility that his father may not be as pure as he once thought. As he journeys across space, he’s forced to decide whether to trust the evidence or trust what he feels. It’s this dilemma and psychological battle that drive the film, this is the real story.
The film does not deliver the typical payoff, the audience is granted a unique triumph, a victory disguised in a sombre conclusion. There is no explosive climax, no gratifying high octane sequence, Ad Astra’s climax is punctuated with silence creating a thoughtful, heavy but meaningful ending for the characters. The film doesn’t gift wrap it, and at first glance comes across as even incomplete, however, once the real purpose of this film emerges, once the real story comes forth, the ending falls into place dissolving any feelings of dissatisfaction.
Ad Astra takes its time, not slow but thoughtful. McBride’s narrations are woven through the course of the film, unlike the cliché the narration does not overwhelm the viewer with exposition, the voice overs here deepen the emotional experience creating a film that moves almost like a novel. As McBride travels across the infinity of space the audience is taken through an equally boundless journey, through the mind of McBride.
Ad Astra is a bold film, it’s a film not designed for the short attention spans of today, it’s not intended for superficial expectations. Ad Astra is a film to be enjoyed by the true lovers of cinema, it’s for the audience that looks beyond what they see. Ad Astra has its fair share of spectacle and wonder but that is not what it’s about, Ad Astra is a story about a journey, not a physical one but an emotional one and despite being set decades in the future and lightyears away, this is a story that is relevant today.