“I am focused on the essential to the exclusion of all else. I will only make pragmatic decisions. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.”
Early and often in Ad Astra, U.S. Space Command Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) delivers such assertions to a disembodied computer voice. Roy’s cadence is convincing. His conviction is a thin smokescreen of lifts, halts and lilts to placate his unseen digital master. He knows what the suits need to hear — and how they need to hear it — to approve his psychological fitness for continued duty in America’s outer-space military branch; in the film’s “near future time of both hope and conflict,” SpaceComm as it’s colloquially known is a longstanding institution.
At the same time, Roy also knows he’d be likely to pass even if he expressed the frailty he feels. Much like the question posed in High Life, a similarly enveloping space story from earlier this year: Why wouldn’t they authorize the expendable when they’ve already authorized the expense to get them there?
These one-sided confessionals come to feel like the existential panic of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” expanded into a feature-length film. Like the album from which that song hails, Ad Astra pushes the potential of its chosen milieu while infusing it with a frighteningly relatable malaise and unease. That’s because director / co-writer James Gray makes the future feel like the most depressing parts of now, which is what we’ll make of it when it gets here. And he makes space flight all the more realistic by making it feel like soul-crushing work, right down to the astronaut analogues of bromides like “Happy Friday” or crippling cases of the Mondays.
Yes, that means this is going to be more neck-tilting eyeroll sci-fi for a lot of people, much like Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, last year’s First Man or other moody-broody space oddities. But after persuading 20th Century Fox to part with many millions of dollars en route to its Disneyfication, Gray has rustled up a film that’s always woozy with beauty, sometimes woolly with incident and utterly wondrous to behold on a behemoth IMAX screen.
It’s a thematic twin to Gray’s The Lost City of Z, set in the heavens of which that film’s explorer, Percy Fawcett, could only dream. And unlike some of those aforementioned black-sheep, red-ledger cousins, Ad Astra balances its considerable pontifications with plenty of propulsive pulp. Whether you ultimately laugh it out of the room or marvel at its achievement, you’ll get something out of the experience.
That’s because you’re likely a lot more flappable than Roy. He’s an astronaut. A damn good one. His heart rate is legend, never rising above 80 beats per minute even under the deepest stresses. Roy regards quarantine advisories the way a frequent flyer for business would safety advice on commercial flights. (Coincidentally, such flights to the moon are available in Ad Astra’s world. It’s one of several spry, but weary, moments of humor about not-at-all strange bedfellows of private-public partnership; just wait until you hear what a blanket and pillow costs or what food options await you at the moon’s spaceport — less a carnival of commerce than a funereal facsimile of our own bleak, beige transportation-hub architecture on Earth.)
Roy’s biorhythmic badge of honor says less about his meditative calm and more about his mechanical approach. Indeed, “astronaut” is still a job, just a job. A job for which Roy has always been destined — his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) went missing years ago at the outer edges of the solar system — and from which Roy always has an eye on the exit.
But an exit to what, exactly? Often harsh when he should have been tender, Roy is estranged from his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler). Every conversation with colleagues either fills the silence or plays out like an opportunity for them to observe his response in a report. As Elton John said so many years ago, it’s lonely out in space. Moreover here, it’s life as perpetual performance evaluation. Giving one of his most dynamic leading-man turns in years, Pitt has rarely felt so simultaneously boyish and ancient. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera plummets as deeply, creatively and inquisitively into the bags under Roy’s eyes as it does the vastness of the stars on which those eyes gaze — each revealing its own obsidian expanse of intangible space.
Roy is performing workaday repairs on the International Space Column when a sudden, violent power surge sends him tumbling to the ground. The scene feels like Gray brought a camera crew up to Felix Baumgartner levels of the stratosphere and then pushed them — violent, vertiginous and very terrifying. Roy lives, but Ad Astra isn’t the sort of movie that wonders what it will mean for him to survive something so extreme when survival is his usual mode. Rediscovered gratitude for life? A newfound appreciation for Eve’s love? A religious awakening? Roy knows the answer is yet another mission, and one to definitely get those BPMs elevated.
The surge that sent Roy spiraling emanated from anti-matter that was used to power his father’s spacecraft, presumed lost in space. Clifford oversaw the Lima Project, the first manned mission to the outer realm of space in search of other intelligent life. Unchecked in its stretch across the stars, Lima’s anti-matter will destroy the entire solar system. Is Clifford alive? Is he trying to stop the surge … or is he perhaps intensifying them for nefarious purposes?
Clifford’s legacy has burnished into a marketing piece to mask the actual bureaucratic lethargy of SpaceComm. You get the feeling, rightly so, that Roy’s superiors fear the falling of that façade more than the destruction of all known life. After all, they probably have a spot in bunkers on Mars, which is where they send Roy with a deeply primal, paterfamilial plan to forestall doomsday: Relay a carefully drafted plea to your dad and then get out of the way.
As Roy unpacks hidden intent behind the company line, the film becomes a sort of Ad Astrapocalypse Now — right down to the use of voiceover narration with an orbital trajectory that always lands precisely on its chosen target of your nose. And if you didn’t know any better, you might think “ad astra” translates to “daddy issues in space.” It actually derives from the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra, meaning “Through hardship to the stars”; Gray imagines Roy as a man whose ascent to space is purely pyrrhic, as he’s not gone through hardship but around it in a well-rehearsed choreography of crippling isolation.
Again, moody-broody stuff, and if you’ve seen a few Andrei Tarkovsky movies, you can tell your friends it’s referencing them. But look: This is a movie with a budget and bosses it can’t escape. Just like Roy McBride. Just like you. It’s got moon pirates in it because who doesn’t want to see Brad Pitt take on some moon pirates? It’s also got race-against-time climbs, zero-gravity knife fights and one of 2019’s most unexpectedly goofy, unforgettably graphic WTF moments on a vessel that has sent a distress call. (That last moment pays off with rather merciless literal and figurative bloodletting, the latter from Gray’s satirical blade sinking even deeper into the wounds we self-inflict in the name of a job well done.)
But Ad Astra is also about how so many of us simply are our résumé and then we either snap or stop. Frankly, that’s kind of a neat hook on which to hang multiplex science-fiction, and all the more familiar father-son stuff is earnest, meaty and malicious enough for Pitt and Jones to make it work. In a key scene on Mars, Gray understands the wide gap between “father” and “dad,” reinforcing the film’s obsession with a clash of authority and comfort. (Envisioned by production designer Kevin Thompson as a nigh-inescapable labyrinth, Mars feels designed to emphasize that what you say can, and will, be used against you in an echo throughout eternity.)
The most convenient character or plot developments in Ad Astra never feel cumbersome, either, couched as they are in chilly contexts of human frailty or Roy’s suspicion that he’s yet again being manipulated into a very personal corner carved out for him.
Indeed, what Ad Astra understands about our earthbound-misfit fascination with stories about space or aliens — and turns on its ear — is the folly of how we fold it into our yearning for more borderless states of being. It’s easy to feel like simply untethering from our self-imposed boundaries and burdens will almost certainly bring with it a deeper clarity of our conviction — that we could corral the entropy of human purpose if we could just cast off everyday drudgery.
Few of us consider how the inherent vice of our faulty biological design will eventually confine us even if we ever do reach the widest, most open spaces of the galaxy. (Not to mention: The only inevitable outcomes of discovering other intelligent life are capitulation or appropriation.)
Fortunately — and with considerable powers of wonder, wit, weirdness and woe — James Gray has given it deep thought. In doing so, he lets Ad Astra thread a needle of insanity, absurdity and humanity that’s adventurous enough to forgive its occasional fumbles. After all: To the exclusion of all else, it focuses on the essential of holding you in thrall.