James Gray’s latest is an ambitious and moving subversion of science fiction
Space films scratch a particular itch in the public psyche. Given an endless void to play with, our imaginations are given permission to go wild, dreaming up new worlds and new possibilities for us to explore. They celebrate how far we’ve come in terms of visual effects and encourage us to bring those hopefully ideas to life someday — they dazzle us and dare us to dream bigger and go further than ever before. Which makes James Gray’s Ad Astra so breathtaking.
Ad Astra’s a film that bears all the hallmarks of blockbuster science fiction, and in any other director’s hands would revel in the plenty of spectacle on display. But as in films like The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z, Gray’s thoughts are often elsewhere, more interested in what inner spiritual cravings are behind our draw to genre films — and the potential real-life consequences that may result of them.
For better and for worse, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the perfect astronaut. He’s effortlessly cool and collected, tackling repairs on an antenna bridging Earth and the Cosmos above as if he was an everyday cable guy scaling a telephone pole. He’s also unbelievably calm under pressure, as when an interstellar “surge” strikes the tower, sending him hurtling back down. To Roy, it’s just another hazard of the job; his superiors note that even here, his pulse never goes above 80 BPM in the most life-or-death missions. Throughout Ad Astra, and joking to our Editor Ed Travis after our screening, I mentioned how Roy and his unflappable demeanor would’ve turned Gravity from a feature to a 10-minute short.
But Roy is a man pretending, seeking comfort in the distance his space helmet gives him from the world around him. His absolute focus on “the essential” may earn him instant approvals on his pre-mission psych evaluations, but has created unfathomable distances between himself and those who might love him. His wife, Eve (Liv Tyler, in a role that appears greatly reduced from past trailers), is less a presence in his life and more of a memory. At times Eve’s a fond one, giving him some semblance of humanity and want to connect; other times, she’s the last part of Roy he needs to jettison before ascending skyward. As Ad Astra begins, Roy is less of a man and more of a tool — one that US Space Command is happy to send back to the stars time and time again to continue their mission of interstellar progress.
This time, though, Roy’s assignment will take him to the outermost reaches of the solar system — and will also force him to confront his innermost traumas. The surge that sent Roy plummeting came from Neptune — the destination Roy’s astronaut father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was en route to searching for extraterrestrial life before he lost contact with Earth. Some theorize the antimatter that powered his ship has grown volatile; others think this may be a deliberate attempt by a now-deranged interstellar castaway to destroy what life there is in the solar system. Roy, who was only a boy when his father left Earth, immediately signs up to save the world — and to confront the father who abandoned him.
It’s a premise that seems bound for dazzling sequences of space-set action and adventure, with Brad Pitt’s star shining bright on the marquee. That’s probably why 20th Century Fox greenlit the film, and honestly, much of the film’s first half delivers on this promise. There’s the opening space antenna sequence; an armrest-clenching, near-silent sequence of gunfire exchange between Lunar rovers; later, a ticking-clock scaling of a rocket minutes before takeoff. James Gray’s action sequences aren’t just a thrilling feast for the eyes — they’re sequences that frequently feel inventive and new, finding equal danger and delight in the unexpected, eager to subvert whatever expectation may be lurking in the audience’s collective void. The Mad Max-ian moon chase climaxes in a topple from a crater, and with the moon’s lessened gravity, no slow motion effect is required…but it’s also slow enough to dissipate whatever adrenaline the sight may have initially caused. I was excited to see a drama-focused director like Gray tackle newer, fast-paced territory, but I was caught off guard at how eagerly and confidently Gray blends and blurs these seemingly disparate tones together. As the film progresses, and Roy leapfrogs from the Earth to the Moon to Mars on his way to the stars beyond, it also becomes clear that Gray and Ad Astra still have greater ambitions in mind.
Brad Pitt’s name is the biggest on the poster for a reason: much of the film is his and his alone. Whenever it isn’t trained on some brilliantly-shot star-lit visuals, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera is unshakably fixed on Roy. In extension of his “essentials” philosophy, everyone else exists on his periphery, flitting briefly within his orbit but never distracting from his singular drive towards Neptune. Aside from a wonderful yet brief performance by Ruth Negga as an equally-detached Martian commander and Jones’ touchingly understated climactic performance, the other names on the marquee — Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland — each have five minutes or less of screen time. And, as mentioned earlier, many of these actors seem to have had scenes cut from the film. For a genre that frequently blends starscapes with star power, one would think Gray’s decision to deliberately cut his other billed actors from Ad Astra’s lean 2-hour runtime would work against the film. But this judicious underutilization of his cast is one of many decisions that plays into Ad Astra’s loftier ideals — and is one of the reasons why I loved this film as much as I did.
Ad Astra may be one of the loneliest-feeling blockbuster films out there. Even before Roy is cast into the darkness of space, to say Gray’s vision of the future is cold and cynical is an understatement. Roy flies Virgin to the Moon, a near-clone of Las Vegas that’s as unbearably commercialized as it is lawless in its far reaches. When he disembarks, the terminal looks like the DC Metro. Tourists are eager to pose with inflatable aliens in gaudy costumes. There’s DHL. There’s Applebee’s. Roy’s voiceover remarks that we’ve cloned whatever we were trying to escape on Earth. Our progress has given way to complacency. To Roy, “we’re world-eaters,” driven recklessly further to distract from whatever haunts us. Later, as Roy’s fight to gain passage onto the Martian rocket to Neptune takes him into an underground, underwater tunnel, he pulls himself forward on a rope into an inky-black unknown. It’s a heart-racing sequence, not just because of the stakes at hand, but because of the shamelessly on-the-nose metaphor of Roy clinging onto the hopes of what he’ll find at his journey’s end.
Because out there, among the stars, there inevitably has to be an answer: both to what fate has in store for us, and whether or not we’re facing that fate alone. It’s why Roy’s father left him, and it’s why Roy left those around him. It’s what’s inspired all of our journeys skyward. It’s what brought us into the theater in the first place. But the further away we get from those sequences that took our breath away, and the further we get from the scant amount of people left to mindlessly, meaninglessly trailblaze at the edges of human colonization…there’s just the stars, the deafening silence between them, and us.
The film underplays and undermines the action of its first half because Ad Astra doesn’t care about being an action film. Its science grows increasingly ludicrous because Ad Astra just doesn’t care about what’s plausible in that scheme of things. What’s so dually alienating and awe-inspiring about Ad Astra is how it acknowledges and indulges its audience’s expectations in order to bring them to a realization that would damn any other blockbuster: that like the film’s cosmos-strewn characters, Ad Astra’s audience is searching for a film that just isn’t there. But that’s not to say that there’s nothing to find in Ad Astra’s infinite void.
In the vast reaches of space, Roy doesn’t have to pretend anymore. And he can’t. Just past Jupiter, now unbearably alone and tethered to a feeding tube, Roy’s unending voiceover finally becomes his spoken word. Not just because he doesn’t have to hold in his thoughts anymore — but because he’s growing to realize just how precious hearing any voice is, even his own. The silence that lingers in its absence is that terrifying. Like Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong in First Man, Roy’s escape from the clutches of others only forces him to confront his own inner pain. Ad Astra has action, but isn’t an action film; it’s got fictional science, but isn’t really a sci-fi film. Rather, James Gray’s made a moving meditation on the sacrifices we make in the name of blind and nebulous progress — a universally-beloved idea motivated by an equally universal and crippling fear of meaninglessness. It’s an ambitious film that’s wonderfully about how ambition condemns us — and instead encourages us to recognize the beauty that we turn away from in the name of what’s “essential.”
Because throughout, for all of its cold cynicism, James Gray’s cosmos is full of such beauty from frame one — in which Van Hoytema’s camera pans from the sun to the Earth in a gasp-inducing lens flare that spans the color spectrum. The planets, in all of their stoic silence, are majestic, ever the heavenly bodies we describe them to be. Ad Astra never ceases to make you feel small and alone — but also finds dignity and grace in that smallness. That there’s a quiet honor to be found in getting to glimpse such wondrous sights for as brief of a time we have on Earth, and to be able to share that with those around us, regardless if we’ve only ever been all that’s left. It’s a bold, mature statement to make in a blockbuster film — regardless of whether or not the film makes any returns for the studio that produced it. Like many things in Ad Astra that just don’t matter, that fate alone may be the most important one.
Every year, there’s a film out there that I can’t fathom why a studio bankrolled it, but I’m so happy they did. And I’m so happy that in its last days, 20th Century Fox dared to make an introspective big-budget film about space exploration helmed by one of my favorite directors. Go catch Ad Astra while you can, especially in IMAX, and enjoy getting lost in it as I did.