For a dozen years James Gray has helmed several of the most fascinating American films of the millennium. Two Lovers limned the romance between a Brooklyn couple (Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix). The Immigrant followed the adventures of the title character (Marion Cotillard). But The Lost City of Z (2017) demonstrated his mastery of large scale productions: a movie worthy of John Boorman exploring the nexus between colonialism and genuine scientific curiosity.
Set in a future remote enough to wonder how the hell Earth has survived climate crises, Ad Astra has Gray attempting one of those metaphysical space movies that every director who fancies himself an auteur must do to show his bonafides. Brad Pitt stars as Major Roy McBride, son of astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), contacted by U.S. Space Command to trace the origin of a series of deadly “surges” upsetting the equilibrium of the universe. The origin, SpaceCom is sure, comes from the remote planet Neptune, in whose orbit the Lima Project decades earlier had planted itself in a search for extra-terrestrial life. Moreover, SpaceCom has reason to believe that Clifford, steward of the Lima Project, lives. They must make contact with him. Suited up and accompanied by a crack team, Roy hopscotches through space: first to the Moon, then Mars before the seventy-two-day journey to Neptune.
The plot, as the audience will expect, matters less than Roy’s reckoning with the baggage: how his sense of abandonment by his father has ruined his own ability to create a personal life. “I don’t know if I hope to find him or be finally free of him,” Roy says in voice-over. Ad Astra answers the question: Roy wants to find him, be free of him, but embrace his legacy. In Pitt’s hands, Roy has a ravaged, weary beauty; in a future obsessed with psychological evals and pulse rates, Roy’s never rises above eighty, and I can believe not even wife Liv Tyler (seen in flashblack in yet another film in which she waits for a man on terra firma) contributed a single skipped beat. He has turned himself into pure surface. A canny performance, self-aware but not narcissistic; Pitt manipulates his public image in the service of a character who’s an iceberg willing himself to melt but can’t — and won’t, despite the ending, which I will not spoil. This is what twenty-five years of movie stardom is supposed to yield.
Indebted to a legacy of sci-fi novels and films from the sixties and seventies, Hoyte Van Hoytema lights Ad Astra in deep oranges and burnt umbers; there’s a haze that matches the oxygen-free atmospheres. A space car chase on the surface of the moon as Roy and his detail hurry to the Mars-bound rocket chased by pirates has a Thunderball chintz. So does a frightening battle between the crew and a pair of experimental primates in search of a meal in a gravity-free zone. The appearance of Donald Sutherland as Col. Pruitt, a pal of Clifford’s accompanying Roy on one leg of the mission, is a callback too. Ragged from the effort of Simply Orange commercials, Sutherland projects the exhaustion of duty (casting him and Jones, vets of Clint Eastwood’s 2000 Space Cowboys, is a subtle touch). This is a world where resources are stretched thin. A blanket and a pillow on a moon flight costs $125 — the haves won. Roy floats in a most peculiar way, Gray hints, because having a mission gives him focus. To acknowledge, after he suspects SpaceCom has evidence that Clifford received Roy’s interstellar missives, that the U.S. Army’s using him does nothing to dilute an awareness of his fate.
If the audience recoils from the jockstrap of macho existentialism, they’re correct. Other than Tyler in flashback, Ad Astra, like most Sad Space Movies, doesn’t have much use for women. Kimberly Elise glowers from within a space helmet, and Ruth Negga has a cameo as a Martian who helps Roy in a clandestine flight to the Neptune-bound rocket without, apparently, setting off any alarms (you may not want to dwell on Ad Astra‘s myriad improbabilities). When Roy and Clifford reunite, Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross eschew the usual sentiments: far from welcoming his son, Clifford wants to be left the hell alone to finish his mission. What’s more, he says, he never loved Roy or his mother. Grizzled and shot to look simian, Jones brings the full power of the serpentine malice that he’s wielded on screen for decades. These admissions, coupled with Roy’s packed-in-ice voice-overs, imply that space is not for the faint of heart; you can almost hear him, like the future White Witch from C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, erect and proud, admitting, “Ours is a high and lonely destiny.”
This is its own kind of sentimentality too, although Gray has the visual subtlety and the command of actors to subvert the idea before the hot air inflates too many balloons. Even so, Ad Astra has more psychobabble than anyone needs to hear in a film — a disappointment from one of the few American directors who can write dialogue. Pitt has to say things like “I’m angry that he took off…it keeps me walled off from relationships; I don’t wanna be my dad” and I look at my lap and the popcorn box is empty (Damien Chazelle’s First Man suffered from similar ailments). This, the inadvertent body count by film’s end ,and allusions to Meville and Heart of Darkness do not cohere into a portrait of a healthy psychosexual profile, let’s say. It won’t help the film’s box office. As beautiful as the film looks, as compelling the flint of Brad Pitt’s work, there’s a familiarity to Ad Astra. It doesn’t play with schlock nor embrace alternative forms of zero gravity psychosexual expression like Claire Denis’ High Life did several months ago — a film that looks increasingly visionary because of its wack-ness. We’ve been in space, we’ve heard these screams.