Brad Pitt in Ad Astra.
Ad Astra, James Gray’s first major studio feature, eschews the blockbuster classification the film’s marketing has pushed forward. More in tune with the writer-director’s more arthouse fare, the film rejects its “studio film” status and weaponizes its space film genre against its audience. In its refusal to follow genre conventions, Ad Astra is very similar to his last feature, The Lost City of Z. That film, which also centered around exploration and the relationship between father and son, told the true story of Colonel Percival Fawcett, a British explorer, who disappeared in South America while exploring the Amazons in the 1920’s. The film plays out less like an adventure film and more as a meditation on the fatal, tragic costs of obsession. Charlie Hunnam played the role of Fawcett, although originally Brad Pitt was approached for the role. In Ad Astra, Pitt gets his chance to lead a thematically similar film from Gray.
This time, Gray trades the Amazonian jungles for an even more frightening frontier: deep space. He also shifts perspectives from an obsessed father to a son who desperately continues down his father’s fatal path. Ad Astra follows Roy McBride (Pitt), one of the country’s top astronauts. It’s the near future, space travel has become a regular fixture of human life, and full colonies are now established on the moon. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), reportedly died when Roy was a child during his time heading the daring Lima Project, an operation tasked with discovering and contacting intelligent life while traveling to the edge of the solar system. Now, after a series of suspicious energy rays coming from Jupiter’s direction cause blackouts across the solar system, the U.S. Government recruits Roy for a secret mission to investigate the rays’ causes. They also inform Roy that his father may still be alive aboard the Project Lima ship.
Throughout the film, fellow astronauts constantly tell Roy how his father inspired them to pursue their careers in space exploration. Roy’s father was indeed a pioneer of the field, leading numerous deep space expeditions before his disappearance. No mention of his father, however, registers much of an emotional response in Roy. In fact, few things at all elicit a reaction from the stoic protagonist. Roy prides himself in his ability to maintain a low heart rate at all times, even during life-threatening situations such as the film’s opening set-piece, in which he falls from a space station down to Earth. This trait makes him the ideal astronaut in many ways—he looks like a superhero compared those who accompany him on his journeys. While this skill proves useful in many dangerous encounters throughout the film, even Roy admits this negatively impacts his domestic life in one of his many voice-overs. Through extensive narration delivered in a detached tone, Gray gives a look into Roy’s psyche, revealing that this stoic nature has come at a cost—Roy struggles with depression. These voice-overs often drone on—their monotonous inflection consistent throughout the film. Disturbingly, this condition seems to be caused by his work, as he routinely completes required mental evaluations to ensure he is not emotionally compromised in any way. This, combined with his seemingly uncontrollable urge to mirror his father’s plunge into deep space, provides a set of tragic circumstances for our hero.
While sometimes Roy shares thoughts that are already communicated through the film’s visuals, these voice-overs capture the character well, presenting the audience an untraditional protagonist. Roy is the opposite of the witty, smooth-talking hero seen in many other space films. His repressed emotional state isolates him from connecting with even his fellow astronauts. He accurately describes his mindset towards most social situations early in the film, stating, “I’m always looking for an exit.” Though at times claustrophobic, the narration pays off in the third act of the film, when Roy, now completely alone, confronts his emotions while en route to Jupiter, where he faces his father. He completes his arc at the end of the film, finally glad for once to reach Earth when he returns home. Ultimately, Ad Astra presents a great deconstruction of “the great man” narrative. Even if it follows a generic difficult, emotionally unavailable man for much of its runtime, it concludes with a satisfying and powerful third act.
While the film’s narrative devices may, somewhat understandably, drive some viewers insane, its technical craft cannot be faulted. Despite having similar themes to other recent space epics from directors who are also keen on physical effects, namely Interstellar and First Man, Ad Astra finds its own, unique visual language. Much of this is due to the film’s immaculate misé-en-scene, which borrows more from Blade Runner 2049 than the aforementioned features. In the film, large corporations have taken over the more colonized parts moon. Upon Roy leaving the U.S.’s lunar base, Gray pulls back to reveal a barrage of neon signs protruding from its outside walls, advertising everything from fast food to department stores. Later, Roy has a short conversation with someone about how rogue groups of pirates fight for control of the moon’s resources in less settled areas. There are references to animal experiment in space. The Mars base contains rooms that project sound and images from Earth to calm the residents of the red planet. It’s these kinds of small details, combined with glorious set designs, which create a world within the film even larger than we ever see. Gray perfectly walks the line of including just enough of these nods within a strict character study to spark the audience’s imagination vast possibilities within this world, without losing focus of the film’s story. Through these details, Gray communicates that Roy lives in a bleak future, making his personal journey all the more rewarding.
Photo Credit: Fox