Ad Astra

James Grey, the acerbic writer/director of small, well crafted, quintessentially New York indies like Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and Two Lovers (2008), has been expanding his canvas as of late. In 2013 he made his most impressive feature The Immigrant, a stunning period melodrama about a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) who arrives in 1921 New York and must navigate harsh poverty and is hoodwinked into a life in burlesque. The scope of that film far exceeded anything Grey had attempted before and, with the help of the brilliant cinematographer Darius Khondji (The City of Lost Children, Panic Room, Midnight in Paris) he brought to life the Ellis Island and Manhattan of old photographs and memories of a generation where the last surviving members had recently passed. In 2016’s The Lost City of Z, Grey left the confines of both New York and his own original writing to adapt David Grann’s non-fiction account of British explorer Percy Fawcett who, in 1925, disappeared with his son in the Amazon while looking for the fabled lost city. Like The ImmigrantThe Lost City of Z not only looks like it was made at another time in film history, it feels that way as well—with Grey’s patient, detailed approach to narrative serving the themes of the material beautifully. With Ad Astra, Grey launches himself even further out of his urban comfort zone to create a meditative space opera that plays like a mash-up of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. While the film is well worth watching, it doesn’t come together in the satisfying way all of Grey’s prior pictures have.

Set in a near future when humans routinely travel to the moon and have bases on Mars, Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as Major Roy McBride, the emotionally detached son of a famous astronaut that hasn’t been heard from since he travelled to the outer Solar System to search for signs of intelligent life. When the Earth starts getting struck by power surges that threaten human life, Roy, a highly skilled and respected astronaut himself, is sent on a mission to re-establish communication with his lost father whom U.S. Space Command believes is still alive and may be responsible for the mysterious surges.

Most of the film takes place both within the confines of space capsules and space stations and within the confines of Roy’s head—with Pitt’s unaffected voiceover explaining his character’s thoughts to us. What we see in the film is wondrous. Like Kubrick, Grey has gone out of his way to be as scientifically accurate as possible in the way he depicts not only the technology but also the details of how a mission like this might be carried out in the near future. Like Malick, all the elaborate production serves an internal, meditative, cerebral cinematic experience.  But since the level of specificity and technological achievement Grey achieves is less fascinating now—in a post-2001, post-Star Wars, post-half-a-century-of-speculative-sci-fi-movies movie—as is was in 1968, Ad Astra is defined more by its Malickesqu qualities.

Grey, a master of subverting genre expectations, should be able to capitalize on the fact that audiences have grown used to realistic depictions of life in outer space, but much of the screen time in Ad Astra is devoted to the wonder and beauty of objects in space. Perhaps that’s simply unavoidable, but it runs counter to the movie’s themes. Grey tries to convey how lonely space travel will be, especially if we assume there are no beings out there for us to discover and communicate with. The concepts in his film are an important corrective to sci-fi fantasies that have become so ubiquitous that people seem to care less about preserving the Earth because they think we can eventually go live on Mars or on the Starship Enterprise.  

But space travel will not be like it’s depicted on Star Trek. It will be worse than any prison term or concentration camp. The isolation and tedium will be so horrible that it will drive most people out of their minds before they reach their destinations. And, unlike ocean crossings centuries ago, once the destination is reached, the conditions will not be much better than those on the journey. If we do send humans, rather than just robots and computers, out to explore the farther reaches of our solar system and beyond, they will need to be anti-social, computer-like humans. Only people with autism or other neurological conditions will be able to tolerate the isolation and the redundancy of performing the same exact tasks day after day, month after month, decade after decade.

Few sci-fi films attempt to show us this grim reality without an emotional counterpoint, which is almost always a focus on the connection between parents and children. Contact, InterstellarArrival, and most other adult movies about space travel and or first-contact seem to only possess this one tool when it comes to conveying to an audience points about the vastness of time, the staleness of environments, and the tremendous loss of human connection we’ll face if we choose to seriously explore the cosmos. Only 2001 succeeds in getting this across to any degree. Relationships between parents and children in Kubrick’s masterpiece are limited to the scene when Haywood Floyd has a meaningless video chat with his daughter from the base orbiting the moon, and when Frank Pool’s parents send him a video birthday greeting, which he watches with emotionless disinterest.

It’s disappointing that Ad Astra employs the same tired parent-child trope as nearly all other major “thinking person’s” sci-fi pictures. Though Tommy Lee Jones, a master at playing old, gruff, anti-social dudes, embodies Pitt’s father, the climax of Ad Astra is bland and predictable. The ending is unworthy of the journey Grey and his audiences take to reach it. And that journey itself is compromised with too many detours into semi-satirical commentary and straight-up action-adventure. After all, how ultra-realistic and cerebral can a sci-fi movie be when it features a chase scene involving lunar pirates?

Pitt, as always, delivers an excellent understated performance. But even this actor— who is always best in quiet, internal roles like Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Billy Beane in Moneyball (2011), and Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (also released in 2019)—runs out of ways of keeping us interested in Major Roy McBride. For all there is to explore in the vastness of space and in Pitt’s square-jawed but expressive face, Ad Astra comes up curiously short on substance.

Twitter Capsule:
Grey's big swing for the stars is an important corrective to space fantasies that fail to show how isolated and unpleasant exploring the cosmos will really be, but he relies too heavily on the same tired parent-child trope of most "thinking person's" sci-fi. 
Directed by James Gray
Produced by Rodrigo Teixeira, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Brad Pitt, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas, James Gray, and Yariv Milchan

Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross

With: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Kimberly Elise, Loren Dean, Donnie Keshawarz, Sean Blakemore, Bobby Nish, LisaGay Hamilton, John Finn, John Ortiz, Freda Foh Shen, Liv Tyler, and Natasha Lyonne

Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editing: John Axelrad and Lee Haugen
Music: Max Richter

Runtime: 123 min
Release Date: 20 September 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1