SNL, which allegedly does “comedy” when not hiring and firing racists, once had a sketch that started “You’re watching ESPN Classic. Come on, man. Spend some time with your kids…” Ad Astra shows just how far some toxically masculine daddies will go to neglect paternal responsibilities: Neptune. Not quite as sophisticated as it thinks itself, the film is still a lurid, pensive argument that the only meaningful thing in the entire universe is our connection with others. Also: rabid space monkeys!
Astronaut Roy McBride is not a robot. That’s just to clarify, as Brad Pitt’s intentionally stiff performance is one pirate shanty away from an animatronic Disney character. Set in the near future, the film starts with electrical space juju hitting Earth and frying lots of technology. Because the cause of every problem in Ad Astra is the Father, Roy has to fly to the moon, then to Mars, and then to Neptune in order to confront his pops (Tommy Lee Jones), who was supposed to be dead but apparently just spent decades doing very, very bad things in space.
The vast majority of the film is Roy monologuing and wincing about his interpersonal incompetence. Writer Ethan Gross and writer/director James Gray get exactly half of one point for resisting their obvious urge to fridge Roy’s wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), as a consequence of his neglect. While they let her live, she only gets, like, three lines of dialogue. A better version of Ad Astra actually shows Roy’s defective behaviors as emotional abuse and doesn’t focus only on how sad he is that she left him for it. Somewhat in the film’s defense, this whole thing does appear to be an attempt to actually reach men like Roy, which does then require a bit over over-sympathizing.
On a small scale, Ad Astra definitely shows that it is not okay to behave like a broken monster just because your dad didn’t hug you. On a big scale, Ad Astra argues that God’s absence, indifference, or cruelty shouldn’t be a barrier to the obvious truth of existence: We need each other and should treat each other with love. Without spoiling anything, the film’s thesis regarding extraterrestrial life is a refreshing position for the sci-fi genre and reiterates our commitment to humanity above all else.
Thankfully, all the somber pontificating is broken up by several truly exceptional moments of legitimate action and terror. This includes a silent, near slow-motion pirate attack on the moon, a zero-G accidental mutiny, and the aforementioned rabid space monkeys. Also, Natasha Lyonne appears in exactly one scene, and the whole thing looks like a visual argument between 2001 and Blade Runner 2049, which doesn’t hurt.
Actually, if Blade Runner 2049’s thesis was “Dude, maybe you’re not that special,” Ad Astra’s is “Dude, it’s okay to have feelings.” Neither are jaw-droppingly insightful and yet both are somehow desperately needed. Take a friend who thinks Ron Swanson isn’t a parody and calls tears “weakness water.”
Grade = A-