Haven’t seen any proof of this, but I would not be the least surprised if it came out that Brad Pitt was sour he did not get the lead role in Blade Runner 2049 and he pulled all strings and threw his Hollywood weight around until he got Ad Astra into production and himself cast in the main role. These two movies share a lot of similarities: visual worship of concrete architecture, male loneliness and emotional disconnect, being reduced to one’s job… but I preferred Pitt’s rendition of the male cyborg (called Roy, to emphasise the link to the Blade Runner movies) over Gosling’s and found Ad Astra more straightforward and less pompous overall. 


It is regrettable space is reduced to a metaphor of inner space in so many of today’s ostensibly space movies. This once profound comparison is by now a giggle-inducing cliche. To me the main value of this movie was not the completely predictable journey of self-discovery and relationship trauma disassembly. It was just an excuse to indulge in a visual and auditory feast of architecture and technology. The set designs were amazingly detailed and impressive, and the movie camera practically made love to the various surfaces, angles and control devices. Sounds of gloved fingers gently caressing and pushing buttons, technical fabrics sliding across each other, breath inside a sealed spacesuit helmet, all very intimate, amid Moon pirate car chases and hijacking a rocket about to lift off, create a delightful contradiction. ASMR porn, if one wants to be crass.


The whole movie was like arthouse-lite. Silent stares, internal whispered monologue a la Terence Malick, 'external as intenal' symbolism etc., but nothing is left hanging, everything is spelled out, and high-action scenes are expertly dosed along the storyline to keep the audience’s blood sufficiently saturated with adrenaline. Pitt’s character, the abandoned son of a famous astronaut, spoon-feeds his thought processes and their results to the viewer. Indeed, the movie would have been much improved if the monologue had been a tad less obvious. He seems to grasp his own motives already in the beginning of the movie so well there really is no need to go to the ends of the solar system to disentangle them. Pitt’s expression in close-up, all neutral and competent, except for the slight nervous shiver underneath his eyes, would have been much more effective without the monologue: “they are using me”, “was he always broken”, etc. He is a good actor, which the director does not seem to truly trust. 


The most touching parts were the recurring emotional self-assessments demanded of Roy. This dragging out, dissecting and measuring of the soul for one’s job, being forced to mentally expose possible weaknesses and imperfections for inhuman scrutiny, while knowing the range of acceptable variation is extremely narrow, explains (and for once without having to spell it out) why Roy McBride is closed off, emotionally stunted, more machine than human. Any outside impulse might endanger the empty calm he has spent years perfecting. That it is at the price of being unable to truly connect with other human beings… well, it is not his personal failing, but a sensible adaptation to the circumstances. Perhaps it was useful to let go of the trauma of being abandoned by his father, but was that really what was kept him and his wife apart? Or was it the all-encompassing and endless demands of total compliance of his job? And what will happen now that he’s in touch with his new-found emotions? Without them, he was superb in what he did. Are thirteen in a dozen emotions that every Dick and Jane have really worth sacrificing his unflinching competence? This guy who can fall off a space elevator, grab the wheel of a Moon vehicle at full speed while his spacesuit is punctured, land a malfunctioning rocket manually, all without his heartbeat noticeably being affected, shouldn’t we celebrate his choices instead of trying to correct him? If we want to go to the Moon, Mars, Neptune and beyond, we very well may need people who are cogs in the machine, and their rewards different from the usual ones. The movie warns of the danger of being engulfed by one’s professional obsessions, and this is certainly something to be watchful of, but surely there are other solutions than averaging everyone to the same emotional input and output.


Final verdict: ignoring the trite lesson about the importance of human connection (really if you want this lesson, My Little Ponies Friendship is Magic does it better), the movie is an elegy to technology and pragmatic architecture. Various layers of steel, fabric, concrete and plastic keep us perhaps separated from each other, but also alive in difficult environments. These materials are gently caressed by the camera’s gaze, and the result is strangely but pleasantly sensual. Rarely has the pressing of the launch button of a nuclear device been presented so that is feels physically satisfactory. After watching the movie, one feels heightened appreciation for switches and synthetic materials and perhaps even an unexpected desire to put on thick rubber gloves and run the encased fingers across a concrete wall. If that’s what you want, go and enjoy this uneven but interesting movie.