When we go to space, how much of our baggage will we bring with us? It’s that question that hangs over James Gray’s Ad Astra, a mesmerizing sci-fi drama that takes us to a future where humanity has started to colonize the solar system and the stars have begun to lose some of their shine. There are Applebee’s and souvenir stands on the moon, as well as vast openness ruled by rival mining companies and pirates. And there’s Martian colonies that look like monumental housing projects on the inside. If 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that Ad Astra deeply reveres, along with Apocalypse Now) gave us the dream of commercial spaceflight with all the style of midcentury Pan Am, this film offers something closer to our own reality: a $125 up-charge for an in-flight blanket.
Set in the near future, Ad Astra is centered on Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) a born astronaut with nerves of steel and a pulse that never rises above eighty BPM. Roy is a ruminative figure (he narrates much of Ad Astra in voice-over), but also something of a stoic. But that has come at the expense of his personal relationships like the dissolution of his relation with Eve (Liv Tyler in a thankless role). When the Earth starts experiencing strange electrical surges, the top military brass tell Roy that the Lima Project is causing the surges. The Lima Project was a search for intelligent life out near Neptune, and the leader of that project was Roy’s estranged father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy’s superiors task him with going to Mars to transmit a message to his father that will allow Space Command to find Clifford and stop him. But as Roy makes his way further into the cosmos, he begins to wrestle with the emotional cost of confronting his father.
The degree to which our parents shape us, for better and for worse, is at the heart of Ad Astra. Written by Gray and Ethan Gross, this is a moody, mournful story of fathers and sons that strikes a balance between a harrowing otherworldly trek and a more interior psychological journey. Space in Ad Astra, is no picnic. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera conveys that with a mix of sternness and enchanting eeriness: empty spacecraft interiors, vast planetary rings and murky subterranean Martian lakes. There is palpable awe and mystery here, but as in Claire Denis’ film of earlier this year High Life, the threat of suicidal despair is never far behind. Mood drugs, we learn, are standard rations for long-haulers of the United States Space Command; otherwise, automated psych evaluations are part of an astronaut’s working day.
Gray’s command of the film’s tonal and narrative shifts is evidence of a sensibility steeped in classical cinematic entertainments (and as well shown in the development of Max Richter’s lovely score, which shifts from a more electronic feel to more classically moving strings), and grounded in the belief that even a meditative, Tarkovsky-like space opera should deliver a good jolt every now and then. And there are a few decent ones here, from a lunar action sequence to a grisly shock that surprisingly develops character well. With those jolts though, we see depression creeping through Roy’s outer cool. His life has been lived in the shadow of his father, growing him into a deeply withdrawn man. Pitt’s performance is one of the subtlest and reserved of his career, with much of it conveyed through his weary eyes. Having already delivered great work earlier this year in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, Pitt’s work in Ad Astra is his most internal turn since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and also his best since.
One can’t shake the impression that Ad Astra — the biggest and most expensive production of Gray’s two-decade career — is in some ways one of Gray’s most minimalist films. While Roy does cross paths with a number of characters along the way — the most memorable being Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old college buddy of Clifford’s who initially joins Roy to the moon, and Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a Martian colonial administrator with a personal connection to the Lima Project — none of them seem to stick around for longer than a handful of scenes. There’s also Kevin Thompson’s production design that delivers us striking glimpses of an alternate future reality. From the moon having become a commercialized dystopia surrounded by a desolate wasteland of pirates, to what we see of Mars being a underground military base equipped with brightly colored, mood-altering rooms. You wonder how these visions came to be, and Gray’s patient, contemplative approach encourages that wonder.
Some will see echoes of Apocalypse Now in Ad Astra, with Roy being the Capt. Willard to Clifford’s Col. Kurtz. Others may be reminded of Gray’s previous film The Lost City of Z, a story of a father and son exploring the uncharted. But as the film progressed, I couldn’t help but ponder on the religious dimension of it all, as there are multiple moments of prayer by side characters. But with more reflection the dimension shows its head more: Starting with the opening scene in which Roy tumbles from the heavens, he might well be a Christ figure interceding on behalf of a fallen species, trying to speak to his silent father. Obviously, I don’t know if Gray meant it this way, but its definitely a interesting viewpoint — to see this film as one about the feeling of God’s absence and man’s search of him. A movie that can support that particular reading is nothing to scoff at. And at a time when blockbusters for thinking adults are essentially on the verge of extinction, it is hard not to appreciate the unusual rhythms and nuances Gray brings to this story.
We spend much of the film in Roy’s perspective, evoked by the voice-over (which starts off a little clunky, but progressively improves) and by a large amount of POV shots, some framed directly through the scuffed-up bubble glass of his helmet. The only relationship that really matters is between Roy and Clifford, a character who mostly appears in old video recordings. Yet this film is far from claustrophobic. Rather, it immerses Roy’s journey into unexplored territory, drawing parallels between inner and outer space. Through it a sense of grace is carried in every step of Ad Astra, a stirring sensation of deep contemplation that flows through this exploration of human feeling in the empty abyss that is the galaxy. But what is this all building to? The endings of Gray’s best films have ranged from the melancholic to the transcendently tragic, but Ad Astra rings out a note of unlikely hope and optimism through the uncomforting emptiness: This is it. This is all there is.