Directed by James Gray
Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga
It’s telling that director James Gray’s latest film takes its title from half of a Latin phrase: Per ardua ad astra—“through struggle to the stars”—because one half of it is glory and awe, while the other is…a bit of a struggle.
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James Gray has said that two of his filmmaking gods are Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick, and the influences of the two are very easy to spot in Ad Astra. Brad Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut in the “near future”—or so the film phrases it—whose single-minded focus on his work has cost him his marriage (to a wife played by a nearly dialogue-free Liv Tyler). As Roy says in numerous voice-overs and psych evaluations to an AI therapist, his remote demeanor and unflappable calm under immense pressure—even while plummeting to earth in an early sequence, his pulse never goes above 80 bpm—are actually defense mechanisms built from the abandonment of his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). The elder McBride was himself an astronaut, and willfully left his family behind on what was essentially a one-way trip to the outer reaches of the solar system to scout for intelligent life.
Roy had assumed his father dead after he disappeared somewhere around the environs of Neptune years ago—the space corps had already lionized him as a hero—so imagine his surprise when he is told that Clifford might actually still be alive. Earth has been plagued by surges of anti-matter, wreaking havoc on electrical systems, costing lives and threatening the very existence of the planet, and the authorities have determined that these surges are coming from Neptune, coming in fact from the mission his father led. Now Roy must communicate with him by traveling to an underground outpost in Mars…and possibly beyond.
Gray’s Kubrickian touch is most apparent in the cold, matter-of-fact way he presents the grandeur of the cosmos. One of Ad Astra’s most breathtaking set pieces is a stopover that Roy makes on the moon which, according to the film, has been designated a free-for-all zone for prospectors of natural resources. It all begins with an entry hall overrun by shops and kiosks, reminiscent of the offhand way Kubrick treats details of futuristic life in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then the desolation of the lunar landscape serves as a magnificent backdrop for an ambush on Roy’s party by moon marauders, an action-filled skirmish made all the more unnerving by its silence. This juxtaposition of cosmic splendor and business as usual is present elsewhere, most notably in a cameo by Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne as a disinterested office drone on Mars.
Gray gets a lot of help from the visual stylings of Christopher Nolan’s new go-to director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema. Hoytema’s camera caresses Pitt’s face, documenting the nest of wrinkles around his eyes with the same unflinching attention it pays to capturing the craggy surface of an alien planet. Pitt himself is game, throwing himself into Roy’s anguish with the unfussy discipline of a character actor. It is in Pitt and Hoytema’s sterling work (as well as Grant Elder’s impeccable sound design) that Ad Astra comes closest to showing us the starkness of Roy’s inner life, as reflected back to him by the cold expanse of the universe.
It’s the other half of Gray’s influences that bog the film down. Roy’s journey to confront the father who abandoned him has the distinct patina of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, because confidential intel shows his father has gone insane and killed the rest of his crew. But the script (co-written with Ethan Gross) never really presents Clifford as anything other than the expedient mad scientist.
Basically, Ad Astra is the flipside of Gray’s unassumingly majestic The Lost City of Z, the account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s all-consuming search for a fabled city in the Amazon rainforest; the two films approach the subject of obsession’s collateral damage from opposite viewpoints. But Ad Astra only proves, in Roy’s belabored musings on his fractured relationships and lonely life, that obsession is more compelling when seen from the eyes of the one holding it.
Gray also builds his narrative foundation on shaky ground: the emotional withholding prevalent in father-son relationships. It’s a little tiresome to see such reticent bonds dissected in such effusive voice-overs, with Roy summing up his thoughts in a cornball sentiment like “The son pays for the sins of the father.” It doesn’t help that this summation happens in the middle of a rushed climax, which basically compresses all the conflict and suspense of Gravity in one throwaway swoop. Ad Astra is breathtaking when it soars among the stars; it’s when it has to look inside its protagonist that it falls flat.
Photographs from Twentieth Century Fox