“Ad Astra” bounces between stifling clichés and stunning originalities, but the depth of its message may profoundly affect anyone who has struggled with rejection and mental health. It is set in “the near future” where astronaut Roy McBride is called upon by the U.S. government to contact his father, who is also an astronaut and is supposedly stationed on Neptune. Roy is surprised to hear the possibility that his father, Clifford McBride, is alive, after disappearing into space when Roy was a child. The effect of Clifford’s absence in Roy’s life clarifies and manifests itself in Roy as the movie proceeds. It is this tension within him that provides a canvas arena for the rest of the movie to build a picture of forsakenness and its destruction.
The screenplay opens with the basics of any modern dark space film: stunning lift-offs, Earth on the brink of destruction, and a brooding monologue about life’s meaning. The CGI shots in space are absolutely brilliant and glittering with realism, the macro full-frame angles shake and spin to burn a chaotic effect into the watchers’ experience, and the white balance is accordingly warmed or cooled according to the planet and its atmosphere. But it is not until about a half hour in that the tension within Roy transitions from a corny, distant, and futuristic problem manufactured for an edgy stock drama to a real problem faced by a large portion of modern humanity. The movie is about disconnection, and one begins to notice more clearly as the film progresses that multiple factors, including the long journeys in isolated space, the noir-style filmmaking that places the audience in Roy’s thoughts, and the looming theme of death, all work to show the claustrophobia of rejection and depression, and the expansiveness of its harm.
Walking to the door of the spaceship, Roy ignores and surpasses all his friends who are laughing and waving at him to wish him good luck, instead thinking to himself, “eye on the exit” to space. Later he isolates himself further, saying, “They’re oblivious to my purpose.” This is a self-inflicted symptom of his father’s vacancy. In one of his many psychological evaluations, Roy posits his inability to connect with others as a product of anger and sadness towards his father. He casually explains that he doesn’t “wanna be that guy,” that dark soul who burdens everyone he is in contact with. In light of this, his isolated later mission serves as self-harm, in which he allows his fears and regrets to haunt and burden him, making him feel insignificant and unloved. His inability to love himself and others is tested and brought to the breaking point at a beautifully pivotal scene in which he must literally detach himself from an object that is dragging him towards death. It is at this point that he decides whether he will hold onto his burdensome self-hatred, or let it go and allow himself to live a life beyond solitude.
Although riddled with the occasional unoriginality, “Ad Astra” is quite innovative in its strongest points, and stunning in its aesthetics. Its themes fit the audience’s internal battles, and in the end, it defies the cold and fatal conclusions to which many classic stories like “Apocalypse Now”, “A Clockwork Orange”, or “Black Mirror” seem to adhere. It far surpasses the modern sci-fi reflex and all-too-popular deterministic ballad that seems to relish humanity’s inability to find happiness. Instead, “Ad Astra” gives a glimpse of the solution after providing a stinging case study of the problem.