Ad Astra - Brad Pitt boldly goes where no man has gone before
Take 2001: A Space Odyssey, add a sprinkling of Apocalypse Now, add a decent helping of Event Horizon mixed with Solaris and then liberally sprinkle with an actor on top of his game and in the best understated performance of his career and you have the recipe for James Gray’s latest film, Ad Astra (To The Stars - for those who might not be up on their latin). James Gray’s visually dazzling and thematically rich outer-space action drama, complete with Brad Pitt’s second terrific starring performance in less than two months, is a big-screen marvel unto itself. Yes, it’s navel gazing in the extreme. Yes, its big ideas about interpersonal interaction and toxic masculinity are highlighted with the brightest yellow highlighter imaginable. That said, it works as its own contemplative journey into the final frontier. Moreover, it’s a glorious piece of pure cinema, one worthy of being seen on the biggest screen you can find.
The plot is simple, the themes not so much. We are told on screen that we are in the near future. A rash of electrical surges or storms threatens life on Earth. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is brought in and sent on a deeply classified mission to investigate these storms, allegedly coming from Neptune, and with Roy’s presumed dead father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) being blamed for the destruction. Clifford was sent to Neptune 29 years ago to search for signs of intelligent life but he has been presumed dead for decades. U.S. “Space Force” believes that Clifford is alive and responsible for the incidents onEarth which threaten the entire solar system, so it recruits the son to try and contact the father. Roy is the best of the best, to the point where his composure makes him distant to everyone around him, but this profoundly personal space odyssey takes him into his own heart of darkness.
The film was co-written by director James Gray and Ethan Gross. Gray’s last outing was 2016’s The Lost City of Z which did not get the attention it deserved. Ethan Gross was story editor on a TV series Fringe, which I loved. It was X-Files for the 21st century.
Ad Astra opens with a stunning sequence involving Pitt and his fellow astronauts imperiled high above the Earth’s surface that recalls, in a more sci-fi fashion, the opening beats of Damien Chazelle’s First Man. Despite the plethora of action beats and sci-fi tropes, Ad Astra is closer in tone and spirit to that Neil Armstrong biopic than something like The Martian or even Gravity (it’s more Solaris than Event Horizon). This is, despite glorified cameos from the likes of Liv Tyler (as Pitt’s estranged wife), Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland, almost entirely the Brad Pitt show. The picture reveals his character through inner-monologue and regular psych-screenings.
What Roy and his fellow outer-space adventurers uncover I will not say, but the first act climaxes with a thrilling and terrifying vehicle chase on the moon with Pitt and friends shooting it out with space pirates, in case you were worried that there wouldn’t be enough pulp in this fiction. There are several moments of unexpected suspense and terror and quite a few more where Pitt’s (deeply flawed) protagonist internally pontificates about the grim legacy left behind by the father who essentially abandoned him and his mother in order to travel to the cosmos. It’s not a leap to argue that the film’s continued references to Roy’s cold objectivity as a key to his occupational value is itself a coded commentary on what behavioral traits are valued in an astronaut.
The film is a consistently compelling cinematic achievement, one anchored by a wonderful performance from Brad Pitt, again proving his old line about being a character actor stuck in a leading man’s body. Running a surprisingly lean 123 minutes, yes that counts as “lean” these days, the film pushes along to its almost inevitable destination with the cosmos. Yes, it’s essentially Apocalypse Now in space, but that’s a hell of an elevator pitch!
Despite the mentioned action sequences, this is a contemplative piece. There were some young pre-teenagers in the screening I attended and they were clearly bored. This is a film that has many layers. It explores both inner space and outer space - both are meaningful. It’s a film that is sure to create debate. I encourage everyone to see this and explore the true final frontier.
If you have seen the film, please read on. If not, come back later. I don’t normally discuss too much of what happens in my film reviews but Ad Astra is operating on so many levels, I have to put my thoughts on paper.
Cliff, Roy’s father, doesn’t actually show up in Ad Astra until near the end, and even then it’s a little hard to tell whether he’s real. (For most of his scenes, I thought Roy might be hallucinating him and I’m still not totally sure he’s not.)
But his presence hovers over the whole film. He’s an absent yet omnipresent spectre, sending what seems to be judgement (in the form of electrical pulses) down onto humanity for reasons the humans can’t quite figure out. Desperate for a solution, they send his son (his only son) as their intermediary. This reading of Ad Astra might seem like the kind of stretch a priest might make in a sermon except that a Christian conception of God is very consciously invoked in the film beginning early on. The pilots of one spacecraft are heard asking for St. Christopher’s protection (Christopher being the patron saint of journeys) as a rocket launches. Roy watches old footage of his father aboard the mission on which he disappeared, saying that in space he feels closer to God, feels his presence as he never did on Earth. There’s also prayers offered by the crew on behalf of a dead colleague and also the general sense of awe that pervades the film.
There’s no one-to-one correlation here; you can’t map the story of Ad Astra directly onto man’s search for God or some part of the New Testament. But the parallels are striking. They become particularly notable when Roy finally finds his father out near Neptune, then realizes that his father has disconnected himself from humanity to the degree that he has no interest in coming home. Cliff is doing Roy a service, in a sense, when he tells his son to “let go” of him, to push him away. Roy then lets go of his conception of his father as much as he lets go of his actual father — and what’s left for him is an overwhelming sense that the only things that make life worth living are not “out there” somewhere, way out by Neptune or in heaven, but down on Earth, where people are.
Twice, that idea is visually reinforced on screen. Briefly, Roy and Cliff grapple in space, arms locked, Cliff trying to get away and Roy trying to hang on. The resulting image is a version of the hand that God reaches out toward man (at least in Michelangelo’s rendering on the Sistine Chapel ceiling), now desperate, man clinging to God for dear life, before finally letting go. Then a variation arrives near the film’s end: Roy lands on Earth and the first thing he sees when the door to his ship opens is a hand outstretched from above — the hand not of God or of his legendary father but of an ordinary man. I know, maybe I’m reading too much into the symbolism!
So there’s a sense in which Ad Astra is a film about immanence winning out over transcendence: the notion that if God or something like it really did exist, it’s been gone for so long that all we have to keep us human, to actually make life worth living, is not our search for God but our love for one another down on Earth. Meaning is here; it’s not out there.
Ad Astra is a poetic, almost symphonic testament to this idea, and a stunning one. In the credits, Gray thanks Tracy K. Smith, the former poet laureate who won the Pulitzer for her 2011 collection Life on Mars, an elegy to her father, who worked on the Hubble telescope and died in 2008. One of the poems in the book is titled “My God, It’s Full of Stars”. In it, Smith invokes a variety of myths and stories, from the legend of the lost city of Atlantis to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s clearly an inspiration.
Comment, as always is invited.