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Review: James Gray’s Ad Astra Is a Deeply Felt Existential Space Odyssey

Balancing humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, the film is inextricably of its moment.

3.5
Ad Astra
Photo: 20th Century Fox

James Gray’s Ad Astra envisions what human civilization might look like when our notion of a globalized capitalist order turns into something more galaxy-sized. Set in the near future, this bleakly premonitory film imagines the moon and Mars as mere arms of the same techno-corporate nightmare-scape we’ve concocted here on Earth. And Gray immediately homes in on an esteemed astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s a beleaguered functionary of this newly expansive human flow, his regular trips to and from planetary pit stops haunted by contemplations of the same old “fighting over resources” he’s accustomed to from our terrestrial origin point, or even grimmer summations like “we go to work, we do our jobs and then it’s over.” As an unspecified enemy’s lunar rovers mount a hostile attack on Roy’s fleet during an outing on the moon, puncturing the wheels of his AAA-sponsored rover, killing a crew member, and wounding his sage envoy, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), there’s a distinct sense that nothing ever changes for the better.

Ad Astra’s sobering prophecy of a future where Subway still peddles foot-long subs in the far reaches of outer space is casually and succinctly expressed through the subjectivity of Pitt’s cerebral hero, who’s tasked with his great assignment—locating the remnants of an aborted deep-space mission—in an early dialogue scene that represents one of Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross’s few concessions to sci-fi movie cliché. Roy’s higher-ups intimate to him that his famed father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long thought dead after pioneering the Lima Project to Neptune, may still be alive, tinkering with dark matter and unknowingly setting off destructive power surges throughout the universe. Identified as one of the few astronauts physically fit and emotionally stable enough to execute such a tremendous undertaking, Roy—fixed in his belief that his father is long gone and uninterested in dredging up painful old memories without good reason—accepts his duty ambivalently.

For the first time in his body of work, Gray renders the innermost thoughts of his protagonist as an ongoing narration track that will garner comparisons to the whispery monologues in Terrence Malick’s films, though the thoughts expressed here are less poetic than functional. Coloring in Roy’s personal backstory (his floundering marriage, recollections of growing up with a domineering father) and telegraphing his emotional state (“I’m looking forward to the day my solitude ends”), the occasionally on-the-nose voiceover might seem at first like a studio-mandated device to bring clarity and sympathy to an otherwise opaque central figure.

But Pitt’s utterances quickly become a jet stream of anxiety that throws into relief the image of the strong, stoic masculinity that Gray presents in Ad Astra, and it’s this dichotomy of ambition and self-doubt that the filmmaker thrives on. As a requirement of his daredevil occupation, Roy is subject to frequent automated therapy sessions designed to monitor his psychological fitness to perform his space work, and it’s telling that a rare emotional response on his part, triggered by a high-security session on Mars where he attempts to communicate by radio with his father, is what costs him his job and sets the film into full swing.

The Lost City of Z similarly treated personal passion as a virtue nonetheless seen by the wider society as a disqualifying liability to professionalism, and Ad Astra’s narrative again charts a leap into the unknown precipitated by an almost foolhardy display of initiative. When Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a native of Mars and fellow descendant of Lima Project royalty, gets wind of Roy’s dismissal, she personally sees to it that he finds his way onto the Neptune-bound shuttle, a code breach that sparks panic and ultimately a string of casualties.

Soon the mission is Roy’s alone, at which point the film’s portrait of a consummate professional ambivalently going through the motions of his job yields to something more soul-searching, with the reverberations of Roy’s past gradually superseding the hassles of his present. It all leads to a father-son confrontation near the rocky rings of Neptune—one that swiftly sidesteps the expected tone of reconciliation in favor of a startlingly bitter reunion performed by Pitt and Jones as a dance between casual hostility and repressed longing, and imaginatively staged by Gray so that Roy must literally ascend to his father’s level.

It’s here, in the anguished lack of catharsis, that Ad Astra is unmistakably revealed as James Gray’s creation. In a film that has all the hallmarks of epic science-fiction filmmaking (state-of-the-art special effects, elegant world-building, an A-list cast), yet feels distinctly small-scale in its emotional spectrum, Gray’s reckoning with the burden of a father on his son carries with it the subtext of a contemporary Hollywood auteur contemplating the legacy of those that came before him. Alongside Roy’s insecurity, Clifford represents pure, unbridled ambition, the kind that defined a director like Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey is unavoidably in conversation with Ad Astra. As an astronaut, Roy commands respect and admiration but nonetheless feels a gaping disconnect from his father’s era of interstellar exploration, a time when, he imagines, there was a greater sense of danger and a higher capacity for discovery, given that modern man’s technological reach has managed to turn outer space into little more than an elaborate highway system.

Ad Astra is a beautiful, lovingly wrought film, from Hoyt Van Hoytema’s impeccably unfussy cinematography (much of it centered around Pitt’s restrained visage) to Max Richter’s ethereal score, but it seems fair to say that the film doesn’t possess, and arguably isn’t reaching for, the moments of jaw-dropping spectacle that epitomized 2001 or, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. What it does have is a palpable honesty and humility, not only with regard to the genre it’s occupying, but also in relation to the cosmos and the future of humanity. In a future where the plagues of civilization have only evolved into new shapes and sizes, it asks, in a roundabout way, if there’s anything worthier of exploration than our own relationships. Balancing this humanist optimism with a profoundly downcast view of our collective destiny, Ad Astra is a film inextricably of its moment.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, John Ortiz, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Greg Bryk, Loren Dean, Kimberly Elise, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Donnie Keshawarz, Bobby Nish, Natasha Lyonne Director: James Gray Screenwriter: James Gray, Ethan Gross Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: PG-13 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 122 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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