Director: James Gray
Stars: Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland
We all live, for the most part, on the surface. We deal with what’s in front of us and we get through the day and we enjoy the people we decide to share our time with. There’s a world underneath that, though. That inner place, where we keep our desires, our fantasies… and also our fears and resentments, our worries and our deepest hurts. Acknowledging that place and going into it can be hard or scary. It requires a deep dive and engenders a sense of falling.
Falling is something that happens to Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride a lot in Ad Astra. The film begins with (for want of a better term) a set piece in which he is knocked from a towering antenna at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. Plunged at speed down towards terrafirma, his heart rate barely raises. Is he unwaveringly cool in the face of danger, or is he so detached from really living that nothing matters? He’s learned to be all surface, but this is a defense against deep wounds. The film at large asks Roy to deep dive into what lies beneath. It’s as introverted a picture as Damien Chazelle’s soulful spaceman film First Man. Like that film, Ad Astra externalises the internal. And Roy has to go further than the moon to reach his darkest depths.
The cause of Roy’s accident is a power surge originating from the orbit of Neptune, where his father, H. Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing, presumed dead over 20 years earlier. His government has to now admit certain truths to him. They fear that ol’ H. is responsible for the surges, and that if they continue they could risk all life in the solar system. Roy is to travel to Mars to send out a communication, in an attempt to reach his father.
In spite of an opening shot that reaches back through time to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film that Ad Astra most starkly resembles is Apocalypse Now, except it reconfigures the psychology. Imagine Willard sent to kill Col. Kurtz, except Kurtz is his father and all he wants is his love. Would Willard still terminate with extreme prejudice? Roy’s journey from the moon to Mars and beyond echoes the patrol boat’s trip down river. The beginning of his journey is marked by a skirmish. An unplanned stop along the way even echoes Willard’s close encounter with a wild animal. Never get out of the boat. All the while, as Roy leaves the Earth and humanity behind, his environments grow colder, lonelier, more inclined to alienation.
Director James Gray and his co-writer Ethan Gross lay all of this out openly. Ad Astra doesn’t particularly have depth because its intentions are laid bare so plainly. This is a daddy issues movie, and it plummets into a personality that is built solely around such a prognosis. Roy’s internal monologue runs through the whole picture, dominating a number of scenes or montages (again, like Captain Willard). We know what he’s thinking because he tells us. He’s shrewdly self aware throughout his increasingly personal journey to gain acceptance from (or to confront in anger) the father who abandoned him.
There’s a distinct lack of human contact throughout the film. It’s decidedly sexless, and even therapy sessions are performed with an AI patch, envisioning a future in which Alexa or Siri might double as your psychotherapist. Thank heavens, then, for Ruth Negga. With eyes as expressive as a silent movie star, she provides an ocean of warmth in the middle of the film. Here, Gray wisely provides a visual breather from all the chilly spaceship interiors. An intimate conversation between Roy and Negga’s Helen Lantos takes place in a room bathed in sun-kissed colours; a mirage of life on Earth projected for the lonely souls living in isolation on a Mars colony. The film is lightly preoccupied with the idea of finding life off Earth, and of missing what’s right in front of you. Helen Lantos is, as she confesses, a Martian….
While we’re looking at the striking visual style of this scene, so much praise ought to be directed toward DP Hoyte Van Hoytema who assists Gray in providing us the most beautifully lit Hollywood sci-fi picture this side of Blade Runner 2049. There are shades of Roger Deakins’ work to Ad Astra, particular in the sections on Mars, but this is still Gray’s odyssey, and what a bruised and brittle heart it has, and so many compositions that evoke quiet awe.
And Pitt? Calling it his best performance is so intangible. There are so many versions of Brad Pitt. From Jeffrey Goines to Detective Mills, from Chad Feldheimer to Cliff Booth. Calling top trumps in this man’s career is nigh-on impossible. But, yeah, this is up there.
As the tether between Roy and the rest of us grows spindlier and spindlier, so our hopes for any kind of happy outcome diminish. To borrow from another film that used the void of space as a visual shortcut, it comes to feel as though we’re really in the sunken place. So much so that the final moves of the third act feel a little forced. As tends to be the case in sci-fi adventures that rest on the insecurities and realities of space travel, a hell of a lot of coincidences and good fortune have to stack up in order for Ad Astra to reach its outcome. How you feel about that may have a deeper impact on your enjoyment of the picture overall.
Still, we can’t submerge ourselves in the dark forever. We wouldn’t be able to function if we did. Returns to the light are necessary and keep us functioning (embodied here by Liv Tyler; more a totem than a character; think Miranda Otto in The Thin Red Line). Still, Gray makes this submergence an utterly beguiling experience. If you’re expecting the thrills of Gravity or the jovial adventures of The Martian, think again. This is a sci-fi plunge into the heart of darkness, even if Gray hasn’t quite the taste for self-destruction shared by Coppola and Conrad.