Outer space is so infinitely vast that it’s literally impossible for the human mind to fully conceptualize it. In many ways, it represents everything that we as a species can never, and will never know. There is no perceivable limit to space: by all practical measurements, it never ends. Science fiction cinema has long grappled with the existential questions extracted from the sheer immensity of space, often to a wide variety of effects. 2001: A Space Odyssey – the eternal gold-standard of space cinema – approached the cosmos with childlike wonder, a mere stepping stone for humanity in order to join its extraterrestrial peers among the stars. It’s no wonder that Kubrick‘s magnum opus was so optimistic about man’s place in the universe – only a year later did Neil Armstrong become the first man to step foot on the moon. Many films since have followed Kubrick in portraying space as the next and most logical path for humanity’s expansion, but just as many movies (especially in recent years) have become increasingly preoccupied with the inner questions posed by staring out into the infinite darkness. As Andrei Tarkovsky‘s 1972 Solaris concisely summarizes, “We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.”
James Gray‘s Ad Astra, a sweeping space epic that aims to fall more comfortably into the Solaris camp than the 2001, is unquestionably the most introspective entry into the space genre since 2009’s Moon. It’s not an entirely successful film, but it’s admirably ambitious, and certainly something that merits a theatrical viewing on the largest screen possible.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut and the son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a world-renowned hero and the pioneering lead behind a groundbreaking search for intelligent life. Almost three decades have passed since Roy’s father went missing near the outskirts of Neptune, and Roy, like most of the planet, believes his father to be long deceased. Nevertheless, after devastating power surges originating from Neptune wreak tens of thousands of deaths on Earth, he is sent on a mission to Mars to try to contact him.
Ad Astra lives and dies by Brad Pitt’s performance. He’s indisputably the beating heart of the film, even if his character’s own resting heart-rate never rises above 80 beats-per-minute. Roy McBride is an absolute enigma of a character, a man whose outwardly stoic demeanor almost never falters under even the most immense of pressure. His job demands as much – failing his routine “psychological wellness” exams means being forcibly confined to a room until he calms down. This is a refreshingly different role for Pitt, especially since it couldn’t be further from his equally excellent work in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood earlier this year. Ryan Gosling‘s roles in 2018’s First Man and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 are probably the nearest in quiet intensity, but unlike those performances, Pitt doesn’t seem to be working hard or even acting at all. Roy can be a little too inscrutable at times, especially considering he is our sole emotional anchor to the narrative, but it’s hard to deny that such heightened restraint lends impressive dividends to the minute breakdowns the character has throughout the film. Pitt does a lot with his eyes, which – more than any other feature of his face – offer a penetrating window into his true psychological and emotional state.
Two of James Gray’s stated intentions for Ad Astra were to render “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie”, and to create a ‘Heart of Darkness‘ in space. While the success of the former is questionable at best, the latter motivation for the film is a much more compelling backbone for its central character’s odyssey across the solar system. In Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola‘s seminal adaptation of Joseph Conrad‘s 1899 novella, the Mekong River served as a literal and metaphorical path directly into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. Space is used to a similar effect here, a hostile environment increasingly littered with death the further out one dares to venture. It’s nevertheless a strikingly beautiful vista, even if Roy and his father both use it as a self-imposed prison to escape their worldly problems.
Unfortunately, while Ad Astra succeeds marvelously in its moments of quiet introspection, so much of the film’s clunky narrative is at constant odds with the powerful ideas James Gray is clearly trying to get across. It’s hard to ever take the film completely seriously when it proposes moon pirates and feral space monkeys in the same breadth as man’s search for existential meaning and the role of parental abandonment in the forming of one’s identity. I am a full believer in the notion of suspending one’s belief in order to appreciate a film’s atmosphere and themes – the foundations of science fiction, after all, rest upon the implicit trust that the audience won’t focus their energy on tearing apart the various absurdities unavoidable to the genre. And yet, whether through studio interference or just lackluster screenwriting, Ad Astra’s script seems hellbent on distracting its audience from the more interesting ideas at hand in favor of cramming exposition down their throats. The film is clumsily bipolar in its execution, as if it can never decide whether it wants to be Solaris or Star Wars.
Even for all its clunky inconsistencies, there’s enough within Ad Astra to admire and even love. The idiosyncrasies of James Gray’s direction, Hoyte van Hoytema‘s gorgeous cinematography, and Brad Pitt’s stunning performance all work to make the film a unique experience that won’t easily fade from the mind. I have too many problems with the film to fully embrace it within the canon of great science fiction cinema, but something about it has nevertheless haunted me in the days since I saw it. Only time will tell if Ad Astra lives on as a space classic, but in the meantime we can all hope that studios continue to fund sprawling and ambitious science fiction films like it.