My Verdict |★★★☆☆
Space. A place I never want to go.
Ad Astra, the new existential sci-fi thriller from James Gray, joins a group of recent films set in the dwarfing expanse of space that have made me reconsider my previous desire to go there. From those million satellite fragments shredding spacesuits and sending an astronaut helplessly swirling into the void in Cuaron’s Gravity to the inescapable perils of time dilation and black holes in Nolan’s Interstellar, space has never seemed more unappealing.
If it’s possible, Ad Astra’s vision of a ‘near future’ where humanity begins to build amongst the stars is even more bleak. The ‘final frontiers’ are controlled, desperate and violent. Our achievements of regular space flight ($125 for the inflight pillow package? Virgin Atlantic, of course) and lunar bases (a moon-mall with a Subway) are reduced to the materialistically banal. This future evokes less the wonder from astronomer Carl Sagan (‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known’) and more the colonialist aspirations of Cecil B. Rhodes (‘I would annex the planets if I could’). Not incidental perhaps in a film heavily influenced by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness via Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now!
It is a depressing depiction of a society caring for itself via computer-conducted ‘psych-evaluations’ and praising protagonist Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) for his low heart-rate under pressure (never rising above 80 BPM). Such a professionalised persona enables the stalwart astronaut to contend with the most harrowing of situations, including free-falling from an atmosphere antenna during the film’s vertigo-inducing opening sequence. However, we come to realise Pitt’s impressively stoic physical performance is his own screening visor through his far more expressive voice-over narration. His internal monologues slowly unveil the unresolved turmoil from his father’s abandonment and presumed death. The now famous H. Clifford McBride (a grizzled, Kurtz-like, Tommy Lee Jones) disappeared on his own astronautical quest when Roy was young.
While his father’s legacy has inspired McBride professionally, the consequences of his departure has wrecked Roy’s emotional attachments as an adult, pointedly with his wife (Liv Tyler, dropping in from Armageddon). Though admired by his colleagues, McBride is distant and unreachable. As he conveys in measured tones: ‘I smile and perform with my eye on the exit’. When the astronaut’s professional and personal credentials are integral to a mission that will prevent the death of all life in the solar system, McBride discovers he will have to cross not just the solar system but the distance he has created from his own emotional pain to solve the crisis.
Ah, emotional pain. Another place I don’t want to go either.
Yet, Ad Astra is really concerned with exploring this emotional inner space. A space that is sometimes found to be as hostile as the vacuum when left to fester. Writing against its sprawling science-fiction context, or rather utilising it for juxtaposition, Gray and writer Edward Gross query and trouble our looking ‘to the stars’ (the translation for the Latin Ad Astra) for ultimate meaning or progress. Instead, Ad Astra forces us acknowledge and grapple with what grounds us here.
It is a tonally cold and ponderously paced film, bordering on tedious at times. However, these elements work for their consistent link to Roy’s state of numbness. The unnerving stillness of space, a perfect match to Roy’s own repressed state, is sustained powerfully. The emotional temperature of the film only rises as he voyages further outward yet looks further inward.
And what an outward too. Ad Astra apes the space-operatic qualities of Kubrick’s classic 2001, of course. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s exceptional cinematography creates the visual sublime and harsh realities of our solar system: softly lit white dunes on the lunar surface interspersed with void-like shadows; dark orange smoky blizzards and oscillating red-shadow corridors on Mars; the ethereal-cold glow of Neptune’s ice rings. The soundscape, or absence of it at times, enhances the realism through the stifled noise in claustrophobic spacesuits and shuttle-crafts. Max Richter’s atmospheric score (with additions from Lorne Balfe), which is never too grandiose nor surreal, completely immerses us in this space odyssey.
Despite the unnerving visual power and serious performances from Lee Jones, Tyler, Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland (though these are ‘pit-stop’ characters compared to McBride, really), Ad Astra does chart a mundanely familiar course. Joseph Campbell’s mono-mythic cycle is so closely followed beneath the brooding surface of McBride’s emotional arc to be almost like tracing moon-buggy tracks. Such clear archetypal inspiration allows for the myriad of psychological and mythological readings that viewers might wish to make, but it never allows the narrative to be too unexpected (when it does digress with shock-tactics the results are questionable- viewers will know the scene I mean). Gray and Gross begin to trust the audience far less by the time we reach the climactic confrontation, as Pitt’s internal monologuing becomes far, far too ‘tell, don’t show’. Pitt even intones, at one point, ‘shall the sins of the father be visited upon the son?’, which might have been for those drifting off in their seats and missing the overarching thematic point.
Nevertheless, Ad Astra still managed to take me to those two unwelcome places mentioned above with great effect. The film is worth the trip not only for its meditative and mean rendering of space, but also to witness the distance travelled within Pitt’s McBride. For a sci-fi film concerned with the furthest reaches of our solar system, it does it’s best to make contact with what grounds us here.