In James Gray’s movies characters seem to act as if they were in a novel, indulging in an inordinate amount of self-reflection. It may, therefore, have been inevitable that the director would eventually set a film in space where there is no limit to introspective opportunities.
Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) introduces us to melancholy astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who will travel all the way to Neptune to assuage his Oedipal anxieties. Roy is a hotshot with nerves of steel, but his dad, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), was a space legend. The gloomy aspect is that 30 years ago, McBride senior led a mission called the Lima Project to Neptune and never returned. This had a predictably depressing effect on young Roy who has never stopped longing for his missing father.
Through a patchwork of half-glimpsed scenes we realise Roy has trouble relating to his wife, Eve – a fleeting Liv Tyler. “Even when you’re at home I don’t know where you are,” is her longest line. His moodiness has not made Roy a nervous wreck but a kind of automaton, out of touch with his emotions. Even in the most hair-raising situations, his pulse barely quickens. For his bosses this makes him good at his job, but psychologically there is something missing.
Gray gives Roy’s pulse plenty of reasons to go bananas, including a dramatic sequence at the start of the movie when he is descending a high tower in full spacesuit and a power surge causes a catastrophe. Apparently the power surges are coming from Neptune, and have the capacity to threaten life on Earth. The big surprise for Roy, in a top secret meeting, is that the authorities believe Clifford McBride is not only alive but responsible for the attacks.
What’s the solution? The master plan is for Roy to fly commercially to the Moon, then secretly to Mars, where he will deliver a dull, scripted message to be transmitted to his father. Gray packs a lot of action into these two journeys, including a battle with astro bandits in Moon buggies, and a mayday call in space that feels like an excerpt from a horror movie.
The message is a lame tactic that has no chance of satisfying moody Roy. When he finally loses his sangfroid, he realises he must go and confront the father he has idolised but never really known. The rest is classfied information.
As a story, Ad Astra sits in the shadow of Solaris, the classic science fiction tale by Stanislaw Lem filmed by both Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh. Lem’s hero is an astronaut who arrives on a planet that is a living organism, able to probe visitors’ minds and play on their deepest moments of shame and regret. Gray’s hero spends the entire film feeling estranged and miserable, looking to exorcise his demons. The basic idea is that a man may travel to the far ends of the galaxy to discover what lies in his own heart.
The other way of looking at this movie is through the lens of mythology. Roy is a space-age Telemachus who reveres the father that set off on a voyage many years ago and remains a stranger. The difference is that Odysseus eventually made it back to Ithaca, whereas McBride senior seems to have found a haven somewhere beyond Saturn, where he has turned into a murderous tyrant. In this sense, Clifford is more like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, transposed so brilliantly to Vietnam by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now!
The Oedipal inference, that the son only ascends to adulthood by (symbolically) killing the father, is too obvious to require further discussion. If the analogy falters it’s because there is no mother whatsoever in this male-dominated saga.
It may sound terribly arty, or literary, but Gray does an excellent job at keeping the narrative moving, regardless of how deeply Roy sinks into himself. He is also good on the details of the not-so-distant future, in which all modes of transport are only marginally more advanced than the vessels and vehicles used in the Apollo program. On the 50th annversary of the Moon landing this feels like a wry act of homage.
Ad Astra’s vision of a commercialised Moon is both satirical and entirely convincing. When Roy asks for a pillow and blanket on his shuttle flight he is slugged US$125. Upon arrival he wanders through a terminal that is a facsimile of the average American airport. The fact that various nations are fighting a war over ownership of parts of the Moon, is also sadly plausible. This is the kind of Lunar landscape Donald Trump might envisage when he starts dreaming of his Space Force.
It may seem like a lesser feat for an actor to play a depressed character, but I suspect it’s not easy to sustain that mood and make it convincing. Coming hard on the heels of his star turn in the recent Quentin Tarantino flick, Brad Pitt puts in another impressive performance. The fact that his pretty boy looks are now a bit wrinkled and worn only adds to his credibility. It used to be that science fiction was all funny costumes, ray guns and special effects, but with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), and now this film, we’ve entered a new, Bergmanesque phase in which the futuristic paraphenalia is merely a backdrop for a personal crisis. It’s a promising development, but for those who prefer the costumes and ray guns, well there’s always another installment of Star Wars…
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray & Ethan Gross
Starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga
USA/China/Brazil, rated M, 122 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 September, 2019