Ad Astra (2019)
The Answers We Seek Are Just Outside Our Reach
If you don’t sort yourself out, you will die alone five billion miles from home. That, in the shell of a nut, is the central thesis of Ad Astra, the new film from writer/ director James Gray, The Lost City of Z (2016), and co-writer Ethan Gross.
There’s more to it than that, of course; this is a solar system-spanning space adventure that takes in several big, meaty, provocative themes about humanity, destiny, ambition, sacrifice, heredity, masculinity, capitalism, and more. But at its heart, warm and fragile against the vast, frozen indifference of space, is a simple message, and it’s the same one we got in 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return: fix your hearts or die.
The particular heart in question is that of astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a stoic of incredible fortitude, which is amply demonstrated in the film’s early scenes where he deals with falling off a goddamn space elevator with the same bored pragmatism with which you or I might change a washer in a tap. We’re told soon after that his pulse has never, ever gotten about 80 beats per minute no matter what danger he’s in.
This kind of nigh-superhuman self-control has its drawbacks, though. Roy’s rigid grip on his emotions has torpedoed his marriage to Eve (A near-cameo from Liv Tyler), and he admits in voice-over (there’s a lot of voice-over, but it mostly works) to have some degree of social anxiety.
Still, it does make him a prime candidate for a Hail Mary mission to the outer fringes of the solar system when surges of radiation from somewhere near Neptune start wreaking havoc on Earth. It’s believed that these energy bursts might be an attempt to communicate from Project Lima, a long-lost mission to try to detect signs of extraterrestrial life by sending a manned ship out past the thickest of humanity’s radiosphere. Communication must be established in order to convince the Lima — if it is the Lima — to knock it off; otherwise, they’ll have to be destroyed.
The kicker, as viewers of the trailer are already across, is that the commander of Project Lima was Roy’s own father, revered space pioneer Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones).
And so, not to put too fine a point on it, but Roy’s outer journey is paralleled by a trek inwards as well, as he prepares for a meeting with a father he thought long dead — a man who was distant enough when he was alive, and whose courageous and fanatically dutiful example is the model upon which Roy has built himself, for better or worse.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) meets Heart of Darkness — or Apocalypse Now (1979), for the semi-literate — is the obvious shorthand for Ad Astra (‘to the stars’ in Latin, in case you were wondering). Some of the more dismissive critiques have labeled the film ‘daddy issues in space’ and, yes, if you’re not open to the emotional and thematic journey the film takes, that’s a serviceable enough slap down, I guess. It does strike me as an unfair one, though. In the current cultural climate, we are finally grappling with the notion of toxic masculinity and the often-tragic fallout that occasions young men catastrophically failing to live up to unworkable models of emotionless manhood. Here is a movie that models a man dealing with the idea that his platonic masculine ideal — his father — has failed him and learning to abandon the less than healthy elements of his old man that he has incorporated into himself. Surely that’s worth celebrating?
Still, no prizes for good intentions, right? Luckily, Ad Astra is an excellent film from soup to nuts. The technical achievements are simply jaw-dropping; Gray was on record as saying he wanted to make the most realistic space movie ever made, and to my non-expert eyes, he certainly seems to have nailed it. Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema, Interstellar (2014), manufactures miracles in every frame, taking us from the sterile corridors of US Space Command (SpaceCom), the airless, grey plains of the Moon, the oppressive red-washed hell of Mars, and beyond. The soundscape, from composer Max Richter, Mary Queen of Scots (2018), and sound designer and sound effects editor Grant Elder, Triple Frontier (2019), is a subtle marvel. The special effects work is seamless, the production design suitably sterile and functional, putting us in a world where people are pieces of the big machine, put into appallingly hostile environments until they break, physically or mentally, and are replaced.
That’s a big theme running through Ad Astra, in point of fact; it’s not just space that’s inimical to humanity, but the social, military, and economic systems humans have built to get us to space. From the suicide awareness posters plastered up on the Mars base that Roy visits to the rigid, protocol-heavy dialogue that dominates the film, laden with technical information but bereft of empathy and human feeling, Ad Astra depicts a milieu where people are only valued according to their practical function. Gray never beats us over the head with it, but it’s just there, always present as a kind of thematic background radiation, in almost every character interaction, in so many of the design choices, in the implicit assumptions we’re asked to make about how this near-future society functions — the people we meet are conditioned to behave as if they have no interiority at all.
And so, we’re granted access to Roy’s inner life via his voice-over narration, which clues us in to his inner thoughts, fears, and desires in ways that his regular physical and psychological examinations do not. There are times when his narration undermines the action of the film — we don’t need to be told what we’re already seeing, after all — but those are few; for the most part, it’s a crucial element of the film, giving us vital insight into Roy’s emotional journey. Perhaps it’s useful to compare Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018), which walled us off from the inner world of Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong to the film’s detriment; Armstrong’s journey in that film felt hollow because we weren’t given enough points of connection with him for empathy to kick in. Here, if anything, we’re given a few too many, but they’re vital to the film’ goals.
It is Pitt’s film, by the way, and he delivers his finest performance yet. Physically he’s perfect for this part: a paragon of masculine beauty aged into rugged middle-age, but with sensitive, sad eyes that betray the inflexible, set posture of the whole. On the metatextual level, he’s even better. Twenty years ago, he mused in Fight Club (1999), ‘Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?’ In Ad Astra he attempts an answer, making a solar-system-long leap of faith to confront his absentee father/ God, who has cast off his family to ponder the mysteries of the universe, why he was abandoned.
That father is Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive (1993), and again the casting is spot on. Jones’ screen time is limited; so is everyone’s bar Pitt — Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Natasha Lyonne and more come and go along the way, but our point of focus remains firmly on our protagonist. Nonetheless, his shadow looms over the entire film, and our ultimate encounter with him is powerfully resonant; he’s at once awe-inspiring and disappointing, pitiful and angering, an Old Testament prophet and a deadbeat dad at once. Jones’ almost caricature-like reputation for stone-faced stoicism leads to expect a certain type of figure to be waiting for us in the film’s third act; his consummate command of his craft gives us something quite other. We tend to forget the aching, all too human sadness and weariness that Jones is capable of projecting, but that’s what he brings to bear on us in this performance, and the effect is breathtaking.
For me, at least; for me, and for a lot of other men I’ve noticed, who lock into Ad Astra’s thematic groove with immediate intensity. There’s stuff going on here that we recognize, even if we can’t process or articulate it, even if we glibly or snidely dismiss it (some of the more vituperative broadsides at the film feel a little too performative to me). Still, this is not a film for everyone. The deliberate pacing and almost complete lack of action — at least, ‘action movie’ action — may be wearying for some. The fact that the film’s area of concern encompasses the limits of stoicism and the failings of traditional masculinity may alienate some of the viewers that might benefit the most from its messaging.
Nonetheless, Ad Astra is a superb work of cinematic art: thoughtful, complex, and challenging, beautiful in its construction, fearless in its thematic probing. In a time when every second-rate superhero opus is granted the sobriquet ‘epic,’ here finally is a film that earns the title.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson