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Ad Astra: To the Stars and Beyond

October 18, 2019 | By Audrey Wang, Illustrations by Norman Zeng

Ad Astra, Latin for “to the stars,” is an accurate translation, but not the best description. The protagonist Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) does journey through the stars — well, more towards Neptune actually — but the biggest journey is the one he makes within himself. Through a shift in his blue eyes, Pitt takes us on an odyssey, tackling generational trauma and masculinity in this visually stunning and introspective film.

Illustrations by Norman Zeng

In the opening scene, we see McBride working on the outside of a space station when an antenna explodes and the entire station goes up in flames. McBride tries to save the system, but he loses his grip and starts plummeting towards Earth. As he hurtles through the air, he remains utterly calm and begins methodically trying to land himself to safety. McBride is the embodiment of grace under pressure. The son of a famous astronaut (Tommy Lee Jones), his heart rate never rises above 80 bpm. Through the depiction of McBride’s psych evaluations and the film’s voiceover, director and writer James Gray gives the audience a look into McBride’s inner thoughts. Calm and cool in life-or-death situations, he comes off as removed and stoic with his now ex-wife in various flashbacks. 

McBride dutifully goes on a mission to put a stop to the Lima Project with a nuke. He is chosen because the Lima Project is spearheaded by his father, and the government thinks that McBride is the only one person that can get through to him. Gray shows us a commercialized Moon, a tense Mars, and ultimately a blue Neptune to illustrate the great lengths it takes for McBride to confront the greatest space he has ever known — the one his father left.

Illustrations by Norman Zeng

There are really no other main characters except for McBride, and Pitt solely carries the audience through the film for the entire two hours and four minutes. Though the character is often nonchalant, Gray’s direction gives us a glimpse into his inner emotions through extreme close-ups. Pitt doesn’t keep the audience away — they are able to see the moments of weakness he lets himself feel. The landscapes and breathtaking scenery by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema are just as in depth as Pitt’s face, showing the magnitude of emotions underneath the surface.

McBride has to journey farther away from Earth to discover more about himself. It’s an adventure of solitude and whether or not sons bear the sins of their fathers. The wonder of seeing rare sights comes at a great cost, and McBride discovers he can empathize with his father more as he faces defeat again and again. Ultimately, McBride must confront the question of whether there is life out there in the universe, or if we’re all alone. Which is more terrifying?