Tackling space in film is a frontier I think has been well exhausted in recent years. Whether it’s the time shifting and multi-dimensional Interstellar or incredible visual effects of Gravity, it’s been shown that graphics are now capable of really capturing the reality of movement in space. Add to that the classics of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, and you have a hard genre to break in to – just ask First Man. But nonetheless, director James Gray of Two Lovers and The Lost City of Z tackles space in a more metaphysical and emotional way, one that shoots for the stars but doesn’t quite make it.
The story revolves around Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an accomplished astronaut who learns that his missing father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), another accomplished astronaut and presumed dead during a past mission, may be alive and responsible for sending power surges through the galaxy as is presumably searching for aliens. There’s no real explanation as to why he would do this nor is that really the point of the film, but merely the vehicle to explore how Clifford’s disappearance has impacted Roy and changes his own relationships for the worst. Soon he is sent across the solar system to see if his father is alive and get to the bottom of the power surges that are leading to the Earth’s destruction.
From the outset, Ad Astra is a meditative film that sees Roy balance his want for answers with his want to do the right thing by his country. In a similar vein to Two Lovers, which is a raw depiction of two relationships, Gray tries to capture the immense grief Roy has and couples it with a space adventure flick to keep the audience engaged. In fact, Ad Astra tries to be deep and contemplative but comes across like a Diary of A Wimpy Brad Pitt, where his voiceover drowns out the films emotional weight as it tells you how he feels, and not actually showing how it affects him. It has a consistent psychological exam that Roy takes that feels a bit like the plot device of Blade Runner with the Voight-Kampff exam, where Deckard gets his test subjects to explain how they feel and judges the emotion of it, but here it feels lazy and insincere.
Yes, they create an interesting character; Roy can keep his heart rate low during life threatening circumstances and has absolutely no flaws – except his father shaped hole in his heart, apparently – but it also feels so predictable. Of course, this relationship has affected his relations on Earth with people like his wife (Liv Tyler), in such tepid scenes you’d forget she was in the film. He’s disconnected and isolated, a sad boy who can only feel whole by discovering what happened to his father. Some may argue it creates dimension to a character, but in Ad Astra it just falls flat.
However, the universe (literally) that Gray creates for the film is the best part. Roy goes to the moon via commercial travel and when he gets there, we see how it has been colonised and commercialised for mainstream visitors. There are battlegrounds and pirates fighting over stretches of land. And there’s Mars, it’s red desolation planet with a few inhabitants (Ruth Negga and Natasha Lyonne included) that feels so removed and real, you can taste the dust. It’s exhilarating and fresh to see these worlds but brought down by the unravelling of Clifford’s history and the silent meditation of Roy as he stares, stares, stares out windows and into old memories (very Inception-like).
That being said, there is a small emotional punch that culminates at the end of the film, whereby it seems that this space adventure is secondary to the story between a father and son’s relationship. The score by Max Richter and cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema really make the film worth staying awake for. Pitt does stretch his acting ability here and focuses more on face work to accommodate his meditative voiceover, as he delves deeper and deeper into the Heart of Darkness. The ending is human, which is guess was the point all along, it just could’ve done it so much better. It’s not wholly original and it’s not a space adventure that the movie poster seems to promote. And its human element slowly unravels itself. For the average viewer expecting a whirlwind space flick, they will be disappointed. It’s about finding out who you are and why we are who we are. It’s Eat, Pray, Love in space that doesn’t reach the ends of the universe its main the character does.
The film is about human and parentage, particularly about how it can influence who we are and all our relationships. It’s rare to have a film in cinemas that is so big budget but retains these themes. Gray’s work here is contemplative and driven by emotion. Brad Pitt’s crying on demand is also a strong point.
In the absence of strong writing of emotional displays, the voiceover overcompensates for the character and drags the high art of filmmaking down. Show us how Roy feels, don’t just tell us.
Originally published on Back Row, 19 September 2019.