Ad Astra is a movie principally concerned with two questions: How do you cope with and overcome the psychological trauma of turning into your taciturn, emotionally remote father? And what if space turns out to be mostly bullshit?
James Gray’s new spaceship flick is this decade’s latest bleak, realist sci-fi movie that wants to show you what a terrifying void outer space is. Where pre-recession movies about space were defined by the wonder and possibility of traveling into the heavens, More recent movies like Gravity (which is a sports movie), Interstellar (which I loved), First Man (which I hated), and, partially, The Martian (which I saw), have all reminded audiences that space is mostly a big dead abyss. It can be scary, yes, but mostly it’s empty.
The blankness of space is reflected in Brad Pitt’s muted performance as Roy McBride, who spends almost the entire film clenching his jaw and being robotically competent. A series of horrific things happen to him, by him, and to the people around him, yet nothing changes anything in McBride’s character. Nothing is ever dealt with or examined. Events happen, he performs his duty, and the camera shrugs with him. He sets out on a secret mission to look for his father, and the most boring version of Apocalypse Now begins.
In the universe of Ad Astra, humans have speckled the moon and Mars with a few outposts and bases. Rather than humankind finding inspiration in the magic of the cosmos to push forward into a new future, we have instead recreated the same crushing structures that define life on Earth. Gray is no Kim Stanley Robinson, and the notion that humans would push themselves to populate the nearest vaguely habitable rocks not to build utopias, but to put up a proverbial parking lot, is a depressingly logical one.
The moon has a Subway, the airport has a Hudson News, and a blanket costs $125 on a commercial Virgin Airways flight. There’s nothing incisive articulated by the film about the society in which the story takes place, nor is there much of an inquisition into the ways humanity has or has not been changed by its expanded horizons. Stagnation is a perfectly fine projection under these conditions, though the film shows you just enough to disappoint when it whisks abruptly by any interesting lore. Not that you come to a movie about looking at pretty planets and cool space stuff for lore, but I found myself with nothing much to care about in this world.
Natasha Lyonne is present for about 30 seconds and she’s the only person even thinking about having fun. Bandits show up on the moon and put on a wonderfully choreographed chase scene around some craters, but even that just sort of comes and goes. There’s a murderous monkey, which, you know, symbolism. Donald Sutherland shows up to more or less play Donald Sutherland, and he too moves briskly in and out of the movie in short order. Everything that is not Brad Pitt and his trauma is ultimately treated as a distraction.
Which would be fine if his arc was remotely interesting or if Gray had anything original to say, but sadly neither is the case. The inciting incident in the movie centers on the unsettled case of Roy McBride’s father Cliff, a famed astronaut played by Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Kurtz on Ambien. He went missing 16 years ago while looking for signs of intelligent life near Neptune, out of range from interference from the sun’s magnetosphere. The mysterious disappearance and Cliff’s indifference toward his son have made Roy a hyper-competent astronaut in his own right and an utter emotional mute.
(There are plenty of echoes between Ad Astra and Gray’s previous film, The Lost City Of Z, which is also about a monomaniacally driven explorer’s quest to find a lost civilization. What makes that movie work is that the main character is actually given stuff to do, and you get to see the ways in which he and the world around him change and are changed by his all-consuming drive. It’s a movie about the human price one must pay to dedicate one’s life to the unknown. In Ad Astra, just as in space, there’s no friction. This would be a better movie if it were about Cliff, not Roy, McBride.)
Unfortunately, there’s nothing remotely novel about McBride’s blunt-force masculine repression. He mopes, pretends not to have feelings, represses anything he might feel, and compartmentalizes everything in his emotional life. He has a famously low resting BPM, and when, say, a space station he’s working on begins to explode, he barely even blinks at it. The killing of people is an unsubtle metaphor for both McBrides closing themselves off to human contact.
You’ve seen a million protagonists like this, and Pitt’s a deft enough actor that it nearly works, but there’s just not enough meat on this particular bone. Ad Astra’s script is pockmarked by sighed monologues from Pitt probably intended to flesh him out as a character, yet the contours of his trauma are only ever thinly outlined or given the proper space. There’s nothing to him. He is an avatar of a sad man with a bad dad, and even when he is given a resolution, it’s hackneyed and weirdly rushed, given that the movie spends two hours arriving at its point. He has to let his father go, you see, and it takes months of isolation for him to realize that connecting to other people is what makes us human. That’s it, that’s the point of the movie.
I will note that Gray’s version of space is magnificently shot, and the loneliness of the infinite void observed by the filmmaker only serves to make his spectacular vistas of planets and refracted sunlight hit even harder. Even if this is a suddenly cluttered micro-genre, this film’s particular eye for hazy, distant horizons and the foreboding beauty of our sun’s planets make it stand out against the competition. Max Richter’s score provides a suitably ominous atmosphere for long stretches of space porn.
Still, neither of those two aspects of the movie is enough to make it any less boring. The film’s chief virtue is that it’s impressive, which is, unfortunately, not the same as good.