Since its release, Ad Astra has been met with general disappointment from movie-goers, despite a high rating from critics. Shaye explores why.
*Minor spoilers from the beginning and middle of the film to follow.*
When I walked out of the cinema in 2019, having just seen Ad Astra (starring Brad Pitt and directed by James Gray) for the first time, I couldn’t help feeling a little hollow. The stunning visuals were there—so were the moments of nail-biting action—but I felt cheated, like I’d been sold chocolate only to get home and find out it was sugar-free.
The set-up for Ad Astra is in line with your typical science-fiction space adventure. Within the first ten minutes, our cool-tempered protagonist Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is already in a life-threatening situation, plummeting to earth after a power surge wreaks havoc on the international space antenna—a giant tower which rises to the earth’s upper atmosphere.
Intrigue builds when he’s sent to United Space Command (the near future’s militarised version of NASA). As it turns out, Roy is the son of H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the man who, years ago, lead a mission to find intelligent alien life and never returned. Roy believes his father to be dead, but now he’s told Clifford may not just be alive, but in a position to stop the recent power surges reaping havoc on Earth.
We see Roy go to the moon, now commercialised and plagued by bandits, and then to the dusty and deserted plains of Mars, where he sends radio transmissions to his father’s location in the deep reaches of the solar system. But it’s somewhere in the stretches of space that the tempo of the film starts to slip. We’re still interested, but we start to realise this isn’t exactly the film we bargained for. Instead of a space-epic exploring the reaches of space, we’d been given a slow-burning psychological thriller that explores the depths on one man’s psyche.
You only need to take one look at the Rotten Tomatoes ratings to know that most movie-goers expected different, giving it an overall score of 40%.
“A disappointing experience” seemed to be the collective response, however critics gave it an 83. So why the discrepancy? Why were our expectations so left of field? And why now, living as we are in a post-COVID world, might we be best poised to appreciate it on a second (or first) viewing?
The problem lies in part with the film’s marketing.
Ad Astra dropped two trailers prior to release. The first, posted on YouTube in June of 2019, used dramatic quick-tempo music and a tangle of action scenes, interlaced with shots of Liv Tyler who plays Roy’s wife. It seemed to suggest that the focus of the plot was firstly on Roy’s mission to save the world, and secondly on the relationship between Roy and his wife. But Liv Tyler barely makes a cameo appearance in the movie, and as one YouTuber commented, “half of the scenes in this trailer. . . aren't in the film”.
The second trailer depicted the film with slightly more accuracy. The music, while similar, started with a more ominous and meditative tone, and slightly more emphasis was placed on Roy’s psychological condition. But the scenes used still seemed to promote the movie as an action-rich space thriller, and eventually the music built in volume and drama until it was virtually indistinguishable from the track used on trailer one.
The marketing team seemed to be positioning Ad Astra as another Interstellar. The track used on the second trailer even incorporated the ticking of a clock, which is a motif in Interstellar. Altogether the trailers signalled to the audience that this film was another grand, high-stakes space adventure with a commentary on themes of love and time. It’s unsurprising, then, that hopes were dashed when trailer watchers took their seats in the cinema and discovered a movie that didn’t bound from thrill to action-packed thrill or deliver a realistic exploration of space, but rather took a more meditative journey through the terrain of one man’s mind.
As the film progresses, the focus turns more and more from the action and intrigue of space travel to the inner life of the younger McBride—his temper struggles, the pain caused by his father’s abandonment, and ultimately his fear of becoming the man he’s angry at. We’re served a variety of close-ups of Roy’s face and slowly his emotional experience eclipses the thrills of adventure.
As a result, the setting becomes more an impetus for character development than a simple fulfilment of the space movie genre. McBride’s journey starts on Earth, but as he moves from station to station, from the Moon to Mars and beyond, we see the expanse of space force him into ever-increasing isolation. Roy is left to confront his own mind—and we are made to confront it along with him.
Isolation, the exploration of the internal—these are themes we became intimate with in 2020. Like Roy, our descent into isolation was slow at first, then total. Classes were cancelled, cafes and bars were effectively shut for business, and we were forced to work from home. It occurred to me that the point of Ad Astra—which wasn’t travelling through space to stop an attack on earth, but venturing into isolation in order to understand the self—was a message we were now better primed to absorb.
Part psychological thriller, part sci-fi adventure, and part philosophical journey, Ad Astra blurs genres. The resultant pace and feel is that of arthouse films, but as a result of its marketing it drew an audience expecting a blockbuster. This explains why it was loved by so many critics and so few moviegoers.
But this doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. Ad Astra displays a careful consideration of themes such as isolation and identity, the search for meaning, and the tension between creator and creation. Its centre—the mental and emotional transformation of Roy as his search for his father slowly morphs into a search for himself—is slowly and delicately unwound amidst an array of vivid and aesthetic landscapes, and will leave you with plenty to consider once the credits roll.