Space is increasingly becoming less of the final frontier, and more so just another spectacle us mere mortals have grown accustomed to, don’t you think? Me, the idea of interstellar travel still blows my mind, but James Gray’s Ad Astra gives us a world, not far in the future from our own, where the nuances of space travel have been made casual and even affordable for the (wealthy) public. Imagine a world where the hazards of space-work are similar to the dangers of working on a construction site, or paying $125 casually for accoutrements on your flight to the Moon. That’s Ad Astra.
Director: James Gray
Release Date: September 20, 2019
Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an accomplished astronaut for US Space Command, though his name conjures his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) for most. Clifford McBride was a hero, who, 30 years ago, led an expedition into the deepest known reaches of space to search for intelligent life. The Lima Project, as it was known, ended with a total loss of contact with Roy’s father and his crew.
When strong electromagnetic storms devastate Earth, the pulses of energy are traced back to the Lima Project, instigating some hope that the elder McBride might still be alive. Tasked with making contact with his thought-to-be-dead father, Roy makes the hike to the stars for his mission.
And that’s about what the trailers and salespitch for Ad Astra would give you. Its science extraordinary, though not made to overwhelm the audience with detail, Ad Astra works in terms vague enough to propel the audience alongside Roy without opening any gaps of logic or real issues with the science, which is refreshing. We’re set up for an adventure, and things feel to move along for appropriate reasons. What an audience might not know before the lights go down, is that they’re really in for a therapy session, rather than an interplanetary adventure.
True, Ad Astra peppers Roy’s trip to Mars (where he’s able to access equipment to contact his father) with moments of action. A run in with Moon pirates and some dubious SOS signals here and there provide pulse-pounding action, yet the scenes are about anything but that. Gray holds back on excessive, thumping music or violence, keeping Max Richter’s space-y score ambient for the most part. No, Roy is mostly numb to his surroundings, with characters even balking at his always-calm heart rate.
From the start Ad Astra is peppered with Roy’s running inner-monologue, exposing himself to be emotionally-detached from his surroundings. The frequent psych-evaluations he’s subjected to as an interstellar worker might recall the baseline tests from Blade Runner 2049, and similarly work to test McBride’s state of mind. He pronounces himself as collected and stable–excessively so. Roy’s ultra-cool is a cover for a man abandoned by his father and struggling to connect with his estranged wife (Liv Tyler).
Pitt carries Ad Astra like a titan, his cool demeanor breaking when it needs to. He’s never explosive, but the nuance he brings to moments of extreme emotion for Roy, someone unaccustomed to feeling anything lends further proof to Pitt’s skills beyond his movie star persona. The cast rounds out with Tommy Lee Jones as the legendary Clifford McBride, with the likes of Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga playing roles aiding in Roy’s quest. But really, this is Pitt’s film, through and through.
The weight placed upon studying Roy as a character doesn’t prevent Gray and co. from providing us with a dazzling scope of visuals to take in. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s always-gorgeous lighting (JJ Abrams-opponents take heed; Ad Astra makes terrific use of lens flare) is one thing, but really it’s the physical world we inhabit that struck me as particularly excellent. Kevin Thompson’s production design is a singular vision, with a future akin to the one seen in Kubrick’s 2001, with the set decoration by Karen O’Hara as a real standout. The future is stark and sleek, but in Ad Astra not exaggerated or hyper-stylized as in something like Minority Report. The future is… sort of already here.
The spaces of Ad Astra bring up another of the film’s many strengths, that being Gray’s ability to seamlessly transition from the surreal or dreamlike to the concrete and tangible. We never quite wind up with a Stargate-like sequence a la 2001, but Roy, in his cosmic wandering, traverses his fair share of zone-out moments of galactic beauty. Even traversing the symmetric, dramatically-lit space outposts that mark his journey can have an uncanny sense of the unconscious. Yet never slipping into a pure “tone poem,” Gray’s pacing snaps us into moments of reality. A visually-abstract dash by Roy to make it to a soon-to-lift-off rocket becomes a very physical, grounded struggle when he realizes, whoops!, he’s under the rocket’s thrusters. Ad Astra is a work of art, though it rarely indulges too far in its medium in any single direction, balancing its heavy introspection with tangible narrative developments.
If there’s a word of caution to instill in prospective viewers of James Gray’s latest, it would simply be to cast aside expectations. Dispel potential notions of a sci-fi adventure, wherein a handsome American rockets to save humanity. Is that the goal here? A little bit. But Ad Astra isn’t particularly interested in delivering an adrenaline rush. What it does is examine just how root some human emotions can be; how a son struggling with a father can translate lightyears away.
My personal sci-fi mantra is “small story, big world.” That is, create an environment that is wonderful and imaginative, but keep your characters grounded and relatable; their story needn’t be melodramatic to hold an audience’s attention. Ad Astra excels at using its sci-fi aesthetic and ideas for the betterment of its human story, and not the other way around.
There’s more than a little to be impressed with when it comes down to it here. We have substantially-budgeted, massive star-led sci-fi adventure, marketed as an early-Fall action fix, distributed widely across the United States. Yet really, Gray’s film is one less of scientific speculation and more of emotional frustration. The epiphany one might have while watching Ad Astra is that the future might change the way our world looks; we might trade planes for spacecraft, and your nine-to-five might be punching numbers on a Martian outpost. Yet for as much as our world may change, people, at their core, will always be the same. You can send a man to the moon, take him out of his natural environment. But you can never take the man out of the man.