Ad Astra (2019)
Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland
In the darkness of space and with the contrast of its blackness against the bright colours of Earth in Sunlight, an experienced space engineer who holds rapport with his co-workers steps out onto what looks like a space station; his task is to check the facility for damages. He’s knocked from scaffolding by an explosion, reaching for a trigger switch to save as many people as he can. Then, seemingly at odds with his selflessness, the engineer is sent plummeting to Earth.
Brad Pitt stars as space engineer and astronaut Roy McBride, a man who’s thrust into the centre of efforts to find a solution to the mass destruction being caused by flares of electricity that are being sent to our planet from the outer reaches of space. His task is to open communications with his father he long thought to be dead, a man he’s told could still be alive on the edge of our solar system with the secrets of the universe and a solution to these disasters in the palm of his hands.
James Gray’s follow up to his 2016 hit The Lost City of Z is similar to his previous release’s tale of Amazonian exploration, Ad Astra replacing the unknowns of early 20th century South American rainforest with the not too dissimilar plights of outer space – disease, unknown enemies, conflicting national and human interests, and the effects of isolation upon the human condition – in a “near future” universe in which Earth has built antennas to the edge of our atmosphere and colonies across the Moon and Mars. Like the director’s previous picture, the surface level themes and points of analysis are perhaps deceptive as regards the picture’s core meaning, because more so than a film about space, than a picture about a father-son relationship, than a movie about humanity’s never-ending pursuit of truth, Ad Astra is a deep exploration of mental health, namely depression, as told through well orchestrated metaphor pointed towards masculinity’s vicious dismissal of its own weaknesses and a well aimed deconstruction of said issues.
Anchoring the movie in this space is the narration of its lead, whose existential and philosophical inner dialogues bring about a comparison with the pictures of Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line perhaps being the biggest influence on this aspect of the film, its presentation of one man in the midst of warring ideologies, pursuits and demands seeming to hold particular influence over the character’s limited dialogue. It is notable, however, that the use of this method in Ad Astra becomes less intrinsic to its fabric than in its Malick counterpart, the early promise such narration brings to the presentation of the repressed nature of the hero’s mental health sometimes being replaced by the use of this function as a crutch for the narrative, it disappointingly fluctuating between existential and expository.
A similar fluctuation hinders the impact of the film’s central arc, with the picture viciously diverting from slow, intrinsic, thoughtful cinema that has been likened to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, to audience grabbing moments of action and even horror not too dissimilar to lesser sci-fi films of the past few decades, the combination of these ideals seemingly the result of conflicting interests – likely between the producers and screenwriter-director regarding marketability and artistry – as opposed to brave creative decisions aimed at heightening the conflict at the narrative’s heart.
It seems especially evident at particular moments in the film that the core intentions of the piece were to create a quite extraordinary exploration of masculinity not too dissimilar to another of its clear influences Apocalypse Now, and the heart of this intention is still very loudly beating throughout the picture. In spite of out-of-place action and horror, the film remains devoted to what it feels like to be a repressed, masculine male struggling to overcome long-gestating issues and the immediate nature of stress, anxiety and trauma. Pitt is integral to this purpose, his performance being as much about what he isn’t doing as what he is doing, the toned back but immaculately refined portrayal being polarising to his performance in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, the actor offering one of his career highlights and a standard bearer for male actors in 2019. He is simply unmissable.
By the same token, the score of the indelible Max Richter is one that truly elevates the picture, the legendary composer’s material working alongside the photography of Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to forge a quite remarkable, tangible and beautiful exploration of our solar system while carefully remaining in tact with the film’s more earthly concepts. From this technical standpoint, Ad Astra is somewhat unforgettable and will almost certainly be included in just about every “end of year” awards season montage.
This James Gray picture is, then, a beautifully photographed, scored and performed piece of cinema that rampantly straddles a line between “high brow” and “audience accessible” but, despite its flaws that reduce the impact of its interesting narrative’s emotional impact, quite clearly thinks that it is very good. It is very good, but only so much as an entertaining science fiction entry level point to deeper, more profound and historically more significant cinema (some of which has been outlined already in this article) can be, the impact of other sci-fi cinema from the past decade being far greater, namely Ex Machina and Under the Skin. Ad Astra, like the similarly as accessible and emotionally more impactful Interstellar, is an uneven but well intentioned film with several aspects that reach such a high standard that they mask the more divisive and negative aspects of the production, making for one of film’s most promising but not necessarily greatest space stories of the year. For that, watch Claire Denis’ High Life instead.