Ad Astra is a Trojan horse of a movie for as mainstream as a film about space exploration wrapped in mystery and starring Brad Pitt sounds like it would be if one is able to expel such expectations set by the marketing and feast on the fulfillment that Ad Astra ultimately embodies given the aspirations of writer/director James Gray's (Two Lovers, The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z) latest work one would quickly come to realize this is a film filled with ideas and questions bubbling just below the surface despite its apparent facade; questions the movie as well as Gray's screenplay may or may not have answers to. Ad Astra is also, and not coincidentally, a film that is as slick in its storytelling as it is its visual representation meaning there is an immediate confidence to the film that speaks to the idea that it knows exactly what it wants to be and where it's going even if, as we go further into the deepest reaches of our solar system, the philosophical ponderings posed by the film seem to be or at least feel more like questions born out of questions that were born out of the writing process. Moreover, the themes and ideas Ad Astra ultimately come to wrestle with being more the products of streams of consciousness writing than they do necessarily questions that pertain directly to the initial idea Gray was chasing. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, as it in fact makes for a rather rewarding experience given the mysteries the narrative offers. The few, distinct answers the film delivers are slight in both comparison and reward to the number of new questions and ideas one's own mind will generate; the thought of the individual experience and reaction to certain material being such that each individual will respond differently, but with valid interpretations and inquiries is a claim not many films-especially mainstream Hollywood space movies with movie stars on their posters-can claim these days. Yes, there have been a number of films about space starring members of the Ocean's Eleven ensemble lately, but neither of those films approach the topic of the stars with as much of a balance in cynicism and optimism as Ad Astra does. Given the Trojan horse comparison, one might expect the subtleties of the film to outweigh the more blunt aspects general audiences require from a space adventure, but there is a specific moment when, like Pitt's character of Major Roy McBride, we come to realize there are more layers to the picture than the ones being highlighted for us and that we can choose to either dig as deep as we'd like or revel in the surface pleasures-both have their perks-but the true reward comes in finding your own place to land.

Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is elected for a singular exploratory mission in James Gray's Ad Astra.
Photo by Francois Duhamel - © Twentieth Century Fox
This is largely all to say that if you've seen any of Gray's previous films then you know he enjoys focusing on the small-mostly grimy-details of life where things don't always make sense, but they don't stop happening nonetheless; his characters having to figure out their lives as life is happening around them. This is very much the same in Ad Astra, but as was stated in the introductory paragraph, Gray is now conveying these small scale studies of big emotions on as equal a scale as he seems to believe these feelings justify. As an avid science-fiction fan, I'm not at all off-put by the melding of such genre signifiers with that of the finer details of contemplating mortality and efforts by which to live this life one knows is going to end to the best of their ability and in the most effective of terms. Its big questions Gray is chasing with answers that are typically boiled down to simple remedies we tend to want more from even if we know we're staring into the truth. This brings us to why, when Gray decided he wanted to write a movie about loneliness versus loved ones, he likely decided to set it in space as a way to perfectly illustrate man's lust for greatness and perceived importance by many at the expense of real, genuine relationships with those closest to them. This is a theme, an idea, a conflict that has been relayed countless times before whether it be through individuals such as Steve Jobs or any other medium where individuals are allowed to pine over what is worth more in life: what will make them happier in the end and who, if anyone outside themselves, would be able to provide such contentment if they were to give into the desire for company and love over their full devotion to a thing or passion. While those simplistic answers always seem to fall on the side of sincere affection and the tenderness of those little moments the truth in life seems to actually be that of balance which is essentially the key to everything from your diet to your career to your family, but just because we've seen such struggles play out before doesn't make this particular investigation any less compelling. This is especially true when done with as much technical proficiency and aesthetic ambition as Gray places on display here. Ad Astra, while taking place at least a century into the future and venturing further into our known solar system than any film I've ever been able to witness on the big screen, ceases to feel distant. Gray's film is insanely grounded given its setting-magnificent and crisp in its visual prowess, disciplined but still massive in its narrative objective and intimate yet completely and fully realized in all regards; a masterpiece of tone and a compelling perspective on oft-dissected struggles.

In the film, we are immediately introduced to Pitt's aforementioned Roy McBride, a military man who has seemingly (recently?) lost the company of his partner, Eve (Liv Tyler), due to his extended absences and failings to be present even when he is around. In light of this separation, McBride has taken a position aboard an "international space antenna" AKA a breathtaking structure that gives way to an even more breathtaking opening sequence where what comes to be referred to as "the surge" forces McBride and several other personnel to either leap with faith off the structure or to their death. It becomes increasingly clear in this moment as to how McBride's heart rate has never risen above eighty as-while plummeting towards the earth's surface-he remains calm while calculating at which point he will need to deploy his parachute and how he will maneuver said parachute once debris rips through the cloth and sends him hurdling even faster towards the ground. McBride's resting BPM is a sign of his composure and control to those looking in which is why in the scene immediately following this opening descent back to earth we are taken into a top secret government meeting where officials disclose to McBride that the aforementioned power surge was an occurrence of that has thrown everything off across the galaxy and likely is the result of something called the "LIMA Project". As it turns out, the LIMA Project was the first mission to pass Jupiter in its ultimate quest for contact with other intelligent life and was not coincidentally headed by McBride's father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). Because of Pitt's character's ability to remain so stoic and calm in dire situations and because of his connection to that mission's Captain the government has recruited him to try and attempt to appeal to the elder McBride's emotions by sending a message from his son in hopes of making contact and deciphering what has come of the LIMA Project and why it has been out of contact for the last so many years to the point most believed the entirety of the crew to be dead. Pitt's character certainly believed his father was dead and therefore is why he seems to have no problems with doing as he is asked to do and flying to the moon in order to catch a ship to Mars where he'll record this message that might hopefully reach his father who is still aboard his ship and conducting attempts at contact with unintended ramifications. It is as Pitt's McBride gets further and further into his mission and begins to realize all is not as it appears that he is unable to subdue his genuine emotions-the things that make us human-therefore complicating what he already thought he had control of.

McBride is joined on his journey by his father's old friend, Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), and Captain Levant (Sean Blakemore).
Photo by Francois Duhamel - © Twentieth Century Fox
The rings of Venus serve as the backdrop for the climactic scenes of Ad Astra and while some may consider that a spoiler I have to say that it feels more a way to exemplify the drive of these two men or rather, the lengths these two men had to go to in order to realize who they were in the deepest sense and what was in fact truly important to them. Sure, the "son suffers the sins of the father" idea is one that ultimately boils down to Jones' character only seeing what wasn't there and missing what was right in front of him, but his arc is really only in service of Pitt's epiphany of what made him the man he is and that what made him who he is was a figment of his imagination; a man who couldn't help but to be pulled down a black hole of his own internal design with no remorse when others had to pay the price for him fulfilling his destiny. The easy question to pose here is, "Why? Why couldn't Jones' Clifford let go of what he thought would bring him true satisfaction in life for what so clearly might be able to fill that void and was readily accessible to him?" Pitt's Roy even asks a similar question early in the film concerning Donald Sutherland's Thomas Pruitt and why this man along with his father were so unable to "let this life go." Like most people, much of my own interest in space comes from how much of it is actually unknown; the mystery of it. Gray uses this metaphor of space to offset that of the messier, less mysterious domesticated life either of these men could have fully embraced were they not so singularly focused on what they didn't know, but what could potentially offer them great rewards were they to find the answers they hoped for. Of course, were they to not discover the answers they hoped to find the disappointment would also arguably be greater than anything they might experience on earth having remained close to the ones who love them. Throughout, we feel this tug-of-war between Roy trying to decide if what he wants is to be like the man he remembers his father as being-sacrificial for the greater purpose of mankind-or if he simply hopes to follow in his footsteps so that he may one day be free of him and the burden being Clifford's son has tasked him with his entire life. "I never really knew you. Or am I you?" Roy ponders to himself as he drifts through the seeming emptiness of space waiting to re-connect with a man he fears he might have never actually known. It is through this kind of existential journey as paired with inventive world-building (space travel is essentially akin to air travel in the film) and an efficiently scripted narrative that not only is Ad Astra one of the more quietly affecting and visually beautiful films of the year (thanks, Hoyte van Hoytema!), but it also reminds us that life's burdens are best handled and more bearable when shared with those who care to be around us. 

No comments:

Post a Comment