BY ARNAV DIWAN
Ad Astra trades the promise of its sci-fi premise for a plot that is of a less ambitious, personal scale, and the result is a film which does little to innovate beyond watered-down tropes of the space opera. Still, it manages to refresh the vectors of the emotional gravitas one expects from family-driven narratives.
At first glance, Ad Astra offers little reason to justify the astral colouring of its title, ‘To the Stars’ leans heavily towards world-altering scenarios, something akin Apollo 13, or even Interstellar. Yet unlike Christopher Nolan’s film, Ad Astra’s cosmic setting barely influences its narrative, instead allowing the characters to drive it towards an albeit anti-climactic but surprisingly personal conclusion. Of course, Interstellar is personal is in own right; it’s just that Ad Astra’s moral has solely personal implications, veering away from the cosmic grandeur audiences have come to expect of the genre. One most likely will find themselves wondering, as I did - Why is this set in space?
The film does draw from some self-validating collusions with science fiction. But here, it suffers - tossing around evanescent mentions of cosmic rays and EMP blackouts, unnecessarily insisting on an extra-terrestrial dimension that never really materializes - drawing away the audience’s attention and expectation, the latter being jarringly denied when the film chooses to completely ignore the stakes it sets up. A better choice would have been to stick to the personal story, for that is what truly shines.
The story follows veteran Astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt), ordered to investigate the fate of his father Cliff(Lee Jones), a legendary scientist and explorer who went missing twenty-nine years prior to the events of the film. Roy is shown to have developed a fractured memory of his absent father, resulting in bearings on his personality that shun intimacy and the overly humane.
The stakes serve his character arc well enough. Towards the middle of the film, Roy’s ‘official’ mission turns personal; he accepts he’s taking this journey not only as an official mission, but to see his father.
This selfishness perhaps, to a certain extent, justifies the setting. The awesome distance Ad Astra charts between its plot and conclusion, the cosmic vastness of it, is perhaps the better choice for capturing, or rather, contrasting against the determined selfishness of one man to serve his own ends. After all, this is not, as most space-operas go, an epic voyage of discovery, instead, it is a less ambitious, personal journey; Coelho’s shepherd through Giza and back, not the Torah’s principals towards their promised land.
Even the visuals reflect this selfishness - the world is always within the protagonist’s purview, blurring out what he deems unimportant.
An excellent example of the selfish camera, as the lingering shot of his wife is not unblurred, even when Roy turns to look at her.
There is a curious bit of cinematography here: Ad Astra rarely allows its visuals without featuring Roy in them, be it in close-up grim reveries, or wide-angle shots of his gleaming spacesuit, spatially bedecked within off distance stars. The second example reflects a recurring theme within the film’s camerawork, as it repeatedly chooses to contrast Roy against interstellar vistas of space.
There are other instances of this notion: Roy’s rover silently rumbling against half-agleam, half-obsidian moonscape; Roy’s navigating watery endless Martian sub terrains; Roy soaring through exoplanetary dust rings; a David in the faces of spectacular Goliaths, all created to focus on a very small, very human protagonist.
Ad Astra is driven by family love – within a cinematic tradition that has for so long romanticized the idea of family - as a way to evoke sympathy and fuel character motivation. But despite the steady build towards reconciliation, in the penultimate sequence when ‘the moment’ finally arrives, it is unexpectedly bland and depthless. Father and son come face-to-face - Cliff appears behind his son and calls out as if he had just caught a teenage Roy sneaking in late after breaking his school-night curfew. there is a surprising lack of emotion on his part. When Cliff is presented with the possibility of being separated from his life’s work, he expresses raw bitterness. But in the next breath, he seemingly has no regrets for abandoning his family for he (insert adjective -poignantly advises Roy to ‘let him go’.
But that lack of emotion is not incidental; this is where Ad Astra makes itself felt. Familial ties need not be always be held to such high regard, it quietly tells us. Personal motivations can and perhaps should outrank them. Roy, trapped in the toxic relationship where he has laboured for sixteen years, at long last lets go of the pipe dream of some father-son connection. He moves on with his life, free from the shadow of his father.