It’s been an iffy run of late hasn’t it? Excepting Tarantino and the MCU, films of the summer have struggled to break into my top ten for the year, and there has been a whole lot of drek in-between. I’m crying out for something to buck the trend and indicate we are heading into a fallow period for cinema, and James Grey has come a calling.
I’m not intimately familiar with the director if I am being honest, knowing him more from reputation than by direct viewing. But what I know is positive, Gray being a filmmaker noted for his excellent work with characters, stories about leaving home and in inter-family relationships on-screen. I also know that I liked the look of this cast, and that I will generally watch any film that Hoyte van Hoytema is the cinematographer for, his last effort being my 2017 Film of the Year, and instant all-time Top Five entry Dunkirk. Add in the sense of a Heart Of Darkness-esque fable through the solar system as a hook, and the worthwhile continuation of Hollywood’s recent obsession with realistic space-based dramas, and I was all-in on Ad Astra. So, did we get to go to the stars, or was it more a case of Ad Lutum?
Emotionally guarded Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut of a near-future where humanity has colonised the Moon and Mars, but remain divided. When the Earth becomes the victim of a series of deadly electrical storms, McBride is called upon to undertake a very personal mission: to travel into the reaches of the solar system to send a message to his once-presumed dead father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), whose long-lost mission to Neptune is suspected of being the origin of the storms.
I was thinking of Nietzsche at times during Ad Astra: “And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” The quote’s already been used as fodder in sci-fi – Firefly/Serenity used it as the basis for their Reaver antagonists as one example – but James Gray and Brad Pitt take it a slightly different, and arguably much more fulfilling direction. In Ad Astra, the abyss is symbolic of the void left by an absent parent: Pitt’s McBride stares into that abyss, and through the course of his epic voyage across the stars, must consider whether he will become the monster his father was, or maybe is.
That’s all that Ad Astra is really: a son trying to get past what the lack of a parent in his upbringing did to him, and to avoid becoming a victim of the sins of the father, of becoming the monster in the abyss. It’s a grand journey, it’s a spectacular look at the landscapes of our universe, it’s an interesting glimpse at how the future of space exploration may go; but it has that critical core of relationship drama to form itself around, and that is what makes Ad Astra a good film.
It also helps that it has Brad Pitt, and to a lesser extent Tommy Lee Jones, to get the point across. While some claims that Pitt has given the best performance of his career in Ad Astra are a tad overblown in my estimation, he’s still fantastic: on-screen alone for large stretches, forced to carry proceedings, playing a character where he must balance an outward facade of emotionless professionalism – McBride is noted as never having had an RPM higher than 80 in any circumstances – that is, in fact, hiding an interior full of deep emotional anguish. In essence, Pitt does very well in portraying a very angry man who has become well-versed at pretending not to be. He’s taciturn, calm when facing disaster and dutiful in all things, but his internal monologue is a more wrathful experience. His fixation on his father drives the film forward, and Lee Jones provides a suitable Colonel Kurtz when we finally get to him, a man driven to an irrational degree, with little care for the emotional destruction he has left in his wake.
Ad Astra succeeds well enough as that kind of story, but it has other, equally weighty, things to say as well. The film has a focus on how best to find happiness and fulfillment, both for McBride and for the human race in general. In the “near future”, we’re looking for intelligent life in the stars and putting down cities on the Moon and Mars, but we’re taking all of our problems with us: war (the Moon is the site of running battles over mining zones), commercialism (Subway has taken up residence in Lunar bases, while Virgin charges extortionate amounts for creature comforts on the trip there) and sheer basic inadequacy in the face of crisis.
It’s not hard to see how the film is reflective of current responses to the planet’s problems, most notably climate change, which too many treat as something to run away from. Using this kind of sentiment as a cipher, Ad Astra’s point, as basic as it may seem, is that we should rather look inward for happiness, resolving our own personal crises, and in the relationships with those around us, symbolised by McBride’s troubled marriage to Eve (a briefly seen, but effective, Liv Tyler). Some may find this trite, but Ad Astra follows through to the appropriate amount of the idea, with its vision of a universe where mood-altering drugs are a must-have on spaceflight and McBride continually recites a mantra of being reliant only on himself and focusing purely on what will get the job done. It’s a film that is unrepentant in its cynicism but also unflappable in its glimpses of a more idealistic path.
Some may be turned off by the film’s pacing. Promotional material may have indicated that this is more of an action-packed adventure than it actually is: what few moments of traditional tension that exist are taken care of in the first hour, part of a series of episodic adventures that probably justify the comparisons to Hearts Of Darkness most of all. They include a thrilling fall from a destabilised orbital elevator; a running gun battle with Lunar pirates on dune buggys (and which occurs almost soundlessly); a terrifying investigation of a distress call from a stranded biomedical vessel, that does not go the way you would think; and hand-to-hand combat within a weightless environment, with deadly consequences. Such scenes are quick, more pockmarks in an otherwise steady narrative, that becomes a much slower affair as we go past the hour mark. Gray’s film always comes back to the father/son relationship as its raison d’etre, with the struggles along the way to the fulfillment of that plot serving as allegory and narrative tests, and not the point of the exercise in their own right. It’s a patient production, that expects patience from the viewer: Gray develops his story at his own pace.
At times it can be a blunt movie. Some of the themes are stated outright, in a way that would seem almost infantile in another film – a line in its climax is sure to result in some eye-rolling for its unsubtle nature – but which I did not find too distracting in Ad Astra. Maybe it’s because bluntness is required when Pitt is on-screen alone for so long, most notably in a trippy sequence where he travels solo for three months on the later leg of his journey. Ad Astra is generally scripted quite well, giving a plethora of minor characters – Donald Sutherland as an early comrade for Pitt, Ruth Negga as a Martian administrator, Loren Dean as an incompetent spaceflight officer – as much as it can with limited time. Pitt says as much in narration as he does in other characters, but it works as an exploration into the aforementioned dichotomy between outward passiveness and inward turmoil.
The film is a sight to behold. Van Hoytema was always going to give something special, having priors in this genre with his work on Interstellar. Ad Astra is a tiny bit different. Erring towards realistic in some parts, less realistic in others, the overall vision is one that nods to obvious influences like Solaris, 2001, The Martian, Gravity and Apocalypse Now, and less obvious ones like Mad Max: Fury Road (the Lunar buggy fight), Blade Runner 2049 (the lighting and general depiction of Mars) and the recent It films (the aforementioned distress call sequence, with the reveal of the antagonist remarkably similar to a shot from Andres Muschietti’s Chapter One). It’s a fleshed out, living, breathing entity of a universe. But, amid all of the well-realised splendours of this near-future solar system – the elevator into space, the corporate-slogan washed Lunar city, the dusty red-tinted mindmelt that is Mars, the behemoth of Neptune for the film’s final act – the best examples of camerawork in Ad Astra are the human and the personal.
We constantly see McBride’s passive, yet subtlety controlled face as he submits psychological evaluation after psychological evaluation, emphasizing the individual in the void; as he travels alone to Neptune, frenetic editing and discombobulating cuts are matched by repetition in shots and lighting to create a sense of distortion and non-linear time; and the environments of humanity grow sparser and more basic the further out from the home planet that we get, culminating in a rundown old space vessel bathed in darkness and otherworldly light.
At all times it is accompaniment to Pitt and others, who remain the elements of production that Gray clearly wants to be the most important: everything else, as it should be, might be masterful, but secondary, there to prop up the characters and the story. As an example, the opening sequence, wherein McBride falls from the space elevator, disintegrating owing to an energy storm, is used to demonstrate McBride’s eerie ability to restrain his emotions, initially a positive, but later demonstrated as an abnormal repression. In a larger sense, its the first example of humanity’s efforts to reach beyond the cradle turning to disaster.
Ad Astra is a welcome leap in film quality after a few months where the good was exceptional, and the mediocre was commonplace. Pitt gives one of his – not the – best career performances in a role that allows some deep thoughtful explorations of space travel as symbolic for other things. The rest of the cast do good work also, in a lovingly crafted universe that is real enough to feel within touching distance, and alien enough that it’s central theme of looking for purpose beyond our planet is believable. It’s at time thrilling, at others moving, frequently contemplative but always captivating in its emotional story-telling and spectacular visuals. It projects a hopeful vision of a future where we can repair ourselves and our relationships through honest introspection, away from the void of either space or abandonment. Perhaps the rest of 2019 is looking up. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).