The year: 2019. It’s a boom time for allegorical science fiction movies which frame their galactic journeys as personal quests, a test of emotional endurance as much as physical, where the prize is a long-awaited epiphanic moment for their psychologically constipated heroes.
In Gravity, Interstellar and First Man, the vast emptiness of space served as a tried-and-true metaphor for an absence of human connection. Ad Astra, the latest film from rising auteur James Gray (We Own The Night, The Immigrant), wants desperately to join the club. This is the rare film about space exploration which writes its message in flashing lights, aided by ponderous voiceover from Brad Pitt’s laconic space adventurer.
Gray’s story sees Brad Pitt’s Major Roy McBride, a veteran of the US Space Command, called away from his work on Earth (and his disintegrating personal life) to investigate a series of devastating electrical surges in the outer reaches of the solar system. It seems that McBride’s space hero father (Tommy Lee Jones), missing and presumed dead for decades, may still be alive and responsible for the chaos. His whereabouts, and the results of his research into the possibility of alien life in the universe, remain unknown.
As McBride’s journey takes him from Earth to the Moon, then to Mars and beyond (with interludes along the way which punch up the action quotient, perhaps intended to appease anxious financiers), his journey grows ever more fraught and paranoid. The disturbing truths which McBride discovers about his past along the way are matched by an encroaching darkness as he journeys further from the sun: there’s gorgeous photography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar), which finds creative and beautiful solutions to the scarcity of light in the solar system. The vast, cold emptiness of space is never far from our minds as McBride journeys further and further from the sun: few films convey so vividly the terror of a life without sunlight, fresh air or trees. In Space Command’s underground Mars base, where Ruth Negga’s colonist gives McBride an uncomfortable reality check, a poster for an emotional support hotline hangs in the background: it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that tells us so much about this bleak frontier. Loneliness, our modern condition, is the only way of life out here.
In terms of production design, Ad Astra is pitched somewhere between the theatrical abstraction of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the grungy, lived-in feel of Duncan Jones’ Moon and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, carving out a unique territory of its own. Gray has developed the technology of the real world enough to get McBride to where he needs to be, and fills in the gaps. The transformation of the Moon into a blasphemous tourist destination, complete with a Virgin Atlantic terminal and an Applebee’s, is a very witty touch.
Director Gray and his co-writer Ethan Gross, returning from Gray’s The Lost City of Z, punctuate astronaut Roy McBride’s (Pitt) journey to the stars with lines and lines of soul-searching narration. Given McBride’s stoic constitution, I can see the difficulty of grounding his on-screen actions with valuable context in dialogue, and the voice-over is perhaps the best engine for keeping the film moving. It’s not elegant, and it won’t please everyone, but it works. What emerges into the light is a deeply felt story about the legacy our parents leave us – particularly our fathers – and the need to keep our feet on the ground even as we look to the stars. It’s also strangely optimistic, a rare outlier in an often nihilistic genre where humanity’s follies, and conflicts, give birth to more obviously cinematic stories.
To reveal too much about where the film goes – both physically and narratively – would be telling, but Ad Astra surprised me with it’s willingness to subvert expectations, to take left turns where other films might power forward. It’s a huge leap forward for Gray, and a valuable addition to the genre. Other science fiction films ask the question of whether we’re alone in the universe: Ad Astra turns around to take the question itself apart.