Do we get one big Astronaut movie from Hollywood every year now? It's starting to feel that way. Ad Astra is the latest major studio movie about the perils of going into outer space. It's a big serious movie that's as much a character study as it is a space thriller about saving the world.
Brad Pitt plays an astronaut in the near-future who's sent to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones) who went missing decades ago on a mission into deep space. Energy pulses from his father's last known location around Neptune threaten to disrupt electronics on Earth and kill everyone. Pitt's top secret mission is to stop his father from detonating more pulses from his ship's anti-matter drive that put the whole solar system in danger. The plot is a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now.
The movie is possibly the most sombre and self-serious Hollywood movie of the year. Brad Pitt plays a man who compartmentalizes his emotions to be a good soldier and astronaut. Underneath his cool is unresolved issues of rage and grief from the trauma of his father's abandonment.
Interesting World-Building Gets Buried
There's a lot of interesting world-building in the background of Ad Astra's near-future that we don't see enough of. There's a military Space Command that has bases on the moon and Mars. There are even warring factions and an anarchist gang of pirates on the moon fighting governments over resources. Which resources? The movie doesn't tell us. There's a whole story lurking in the background involving a Space Command that might be fascistic and engages in cover-ups and assassinations that's glossed over.
Why isn't the whole movie about moon pirates? I'd love to see a movie about moon pirates! What are they about? How do they live? What do they pirate? There's a whole world here and we only see a chase and a shootout because the filmmaker wants to turn space into one big therapy session about daddy issues. Everything else is just background detail. Those background details are all much more interesting that a guy who can't get over his daddy issues!
This Movie is Sooooo Serious
There's a scene where Brad Pitt fights an angry baboon on a space ship. And it doesn't acknowledge the surreal absurdity of it all. I idly mused that the baboon might be an externalization of his inner rage. Then Brad Pitt's voiceover immediately mentions that he sees the baboon as an externalization of his own rage! This movie really is that on-the-nose!
There's a near-farcical scene where three astronauts try to kill Brad Pitt and their actions cause them to die. But it's presented as terribly, terribly serious when the lesson here is "Don't mess with Brad Pitt." This movie even sneaks in the "black guy dies first!" trope without any irony.
I've seen just about all of James Gray's movies. I don't think a James Gray movie with a sense of humour exists in this universe. That means there's another universe out there where James Gray makes the funniest movies in the world.
I couldn't help thinking of this SNL sketch because it is everything Ad Astra isn't.
The Century of Sad Astronaut Movies
I wonder why Astronaut movies in the 21st Century are often Sad Astronaut movies. Astronauts were symbols of hope, bravery and the future, but Hollywood keeps turning them into figures of melancholy and doom. Sam Rockwell in Moon discovers he's a disposable clone who has to fight for his right to live. Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar has to abandon his children on a desperate mission to save the Earth. Sandra Bullock in Gravity has a dead daughter in her background. Ryan Gosling in First Man plays Neil Armstrong as a man mourning his dead daughter and compartmentalizing his possible death in space.
If we're in a bad timeline, Astronaut movies seem to reflect our anxiety and sense of doom. Even The Martian, the most fun and optimistic of the recent Astronaut movies touches on moments where Matt Damon has to fight back despair over being marooned on Mars, more than the original book did.
In Sad Astronaut movies, being an astronaut and going into space isn't just a mission for King and Country but a journey of personal, existential reckoning. The astronaut hero has to face the deepest, most damaged part of himself like Space is one big therapy session. For Brad Pitt's character, the mission to save the Earth becomes as much a mission to confront his father about his abandoning of the family and the trauma that caused.
In Ad Astra, the vast emptiness of space becomes the best psychotherapist a guy with daddy issues could possibly get.