Given enough time, we all become orphans. I remember my dad joking darkly after my grandfather died that he was an orphan now. I thought it was an odd joke then, if typical of my dad’s sense of humor. What I didn’t understand as a child is that even when we become adults, the child we were is still alive in us, our relationships with our parents are always marked by the dynamics of our childhood years, and our parents’ presence in our lives is always a boon, even if we go long periods of time without seeing them. When they die, we are left behind, orphaned children who must now go on alone.
That’s hardly the happiest way to begin a film review, but I believe in being true to the film in question, and Ad Astra is a melancholy affair. Simply put, an astronaut, Roy (sad Brad Pitt), sails across the solar system to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones) who may be doing something that threatens all life whilst searching for new life. There’s a lot of talk about God and guilt and intelligent life “out there” in the universe, but the action of the story is more straightforward. A son searches for his thought-dead father in hopes of making peace.
I suppose I should throw a few of random action scenes into the preceding paragraphs if I wanted to be truly faithful to the film, but that feels false, just as the action scenes in Ad Astra feel false. Fortunately, they are over quickly. They are entertaining in their own right, but they give the film a disjointed feeling. Maybe they would have worked if they were touched by absurdity—a metaphor for the irrationality of death and truer to the spirit of the correlating scenes in Ad Astra’s progenitor, Apocalypse Now—but they’re not. They’re delivered directly, as if we have reason to fear for Roy’s safety, as if he’s not certainly going to get where he’s going. The one white-knuckle scene that works for me is the first one which has Roy falling from an ozone-scraping antenna. It reminded me of the work of Jeremy Geddes, whose hyperrealistic paintings of cosmonauts in suspended descent capture one of life’s essential elements – the constant feeling of being visitors to this existence and almost out of time.
Our mortal transience is a theme that crowds out all others, even questions about God, which the film also has on its mind. (As I insinuated, it’s kind of muddy and uneven. Choose your own adventure.) The Problem of Death is the great question for me. Considering all the liveliness that surrounds us – animal, vegetable, and mineral – death is hard to wrap my head around. Death is the irrational element in all of this. How could any of this shining have an end?
Thankfully, my parents are both still with me. They have not begun to leave me physically or mentally. I can only imagine what it’s like to watch your parents deteriorate, to slowly succumb to a physical or mental ailment. Ad Astra begins to feel like a metaphor for dealing with a parent with dementia or advanced Alzheimer’s. It would make a good pairing with Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special in that respect. One film deals science-fictionally with the gradual death of a parent. The other with the gradual death of a child. Ad Astra is at its best as it reaches toward that metaphor and eschews the rest.