Ad Astra is utterly beautiful. Views of Neptune’s rings or the depths of space enchant me. It works as an adventure film, with a car chase in lunar buggies and a zero-gravity fight, but most of all it is a meditation on what it means to be a man, and how to be the best man you are. Brad Pitt is beautiful to look at, inhabiting the hero and expressing all of him, in facial movements and the way he walks.
It is a Man film, where men confront each other and do heroic things, and women are receptionists or an uncomprehended love interest, but two women are at decisive moments, the woman he loves yet cannot (at least at the start) communicate with, who leaves him, and the woman on Mars who issues the challenge he must face alone.
The film is gorgeous to look at. It starts with a tower so tall he needs a pressure suit to go outside, and has a view of Jupiter as his space ship passes by. It has Brad Pitt’s face, with thoughts and feelings flooding through it as he takes up his task, wanting to send a message to the woman he loves yet not having the words or knowing what to say.
Some of the space stuff is ridiculous. To travel to Neptune in seventy days you would have to accelerate then decelerate at 160x Earth gravity, and he would be a stain on the back wall. But on a mythic level, a solitary journey of seventy days to the farthest planet is moving, expressed by more shots of Pitt’s face, of him making his way through the ship, and of his ship receding, disappearing into the dark.
The man starts the film overshadowed by his famous father, following in his footsteps a long way behind, doing dangerous jobs in space out of a sense of duty, doing what his bosses instruct. They praise him as a good serviceman. His repeated psych evals show him to be well adjusted to this obedience. They give him a task: to send a message to his father, who may still be alive, but they draft the message which he must merely read out. For some reason or another he has to go to Mars to do that.Getting there involves adventure sequences threatening his life and that of those who rely on him, and an encounter with an old “friend” of his father.
The message has no answer (an answer would take about six hours). Then he speaks for himself, making a plea to his father from his heart. In giving his all to do what he decides for himself to make his goal, he becomes a mature man.
His father is also a Man, whose great task subsumes all other moral or practical imperatives, whose failure to find the result he wishes makes him wish for death. His devotion to an impossible dream makes him murderous.
All that matters is the task each has chosen freely, which each must complete though they die. Death is ever present, from the beauty and bleakness of the sun through a visor of a space suit in the opening shots to the encounter between the two men, the son sacrificed for his father’s life purpose and the father, a great explorer and also a failure, solitary for sixteen years. His failure is that he cannot accept that he cannot have what he wanted so much, cannot relinquish the task though further effort is futile.
The film shows a journey through challenge to freedom, maturity, and flowering as a real man, doing what the son must do and knowing and expressing his feelings, relating authentically to others. It works as myth.