Brad Pitt seeks the divine amongst the stars in James Gray’s flawed but mesmerizing space epic.
In one of its many misdirects, Ad Astra begins with a syzygy. It could be planets or stars—no, it’s just light. It’s here, it exists, it happens to align, the end. Then it shows us Roy McBride. Brad Pitt plays this man, and while the face onscreen is notable, his character is just the opposite. He’s extra ordinary, not extraordinary. His clout in his profession as an astronaut is his ability to underreact.
Decades ago, his father, H. Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the deep reaches of space. Now Roy’s grown up to be the man known for never having a heart rate above 80 beats per minute while on a mission, and his affect could, depending on context, pass as focused or apathetic. Life just sort of comes at him. Like the light that aligned at the beginning, it’s just a wonder such a baseline could exist. Now Roy is deciding to go on a similar mission as his dad. He says that it’s to find more resources for Earth, but of course, that’s a lie.
He’s a selfish man. He ignores his better half (Liv Tyler, in a jab against her own role in Armageddon), and as his journey past the galaxy unfolds, he shows himself to be the center of his own universe. If he appears to care, maybe it’s because we would prefer him to. After all, the interiors of his ship have more flow than he does: they curlicue around him in one scene; they straighten into infinity in the next. The pipes crawl behind him and the lights seep around each wall. The world is his mood ring. Is it a waste, then, that he has so few at all?
That would depend on a basic set of ethics, which Ad Astra runs parallel to. We’re not so much looking with Roy as we are looking through him, and it doesn’t take long for the façade to collapse. Instead, the arcs depend almost completely on motifs. The pipes. The walls that appear lit from within. The stretches of inactivity that consume anyone else who dares to intrude on a quest that is Roy’s, and Roy’s only. Like an inverse Icarus, it’s everyone else that flies too close to the sun, and our protagonist watches the effects without seeming to ever live them.
It’s curious in some ways. Director James Gray (The Immigrant) and his co-writer, Ethan Gross, keep an arm’s length that allows for audience projection while teasing the viewers who do so. And yet it never becomes cruel, because such an outcome would undercut the universality in which it treats its characters. If anything, it’s best to experience Ad Astra without trying to be active in the story. Try too hard to look back and the past will just become a cosmic joke.
Besides, there’s more than enough to look at in the moment: the way Hoyte Van Hoytema (returning to film space for the first time since Interstellar) shoots Kevin Thompson’s production design shows great synchronicity. The truth is that there’s much more alignment on a sensual level than in Gray & Gross’s script, which, while mesmerizing when at its simplest, can’t help but over-explain itself.
The dialogue in the first half is repetitive, but that adds to the texture. That isn’t the problem here. It’s how overt it is. It sabotages Gray’s willingness to completely give himself over to one tone, and what could have been told without any words at all instead stay constricted to Roy’s inner monologues.
It’s best to experience Ad Astra without trying to be active in the story. Try too hard to look back and the past will just become a cosmic joke.
Similar issues arise from the last 15 minutes, which, while affecting, give in to too many codas as if to accrue a more traditional structure. The most “action-packed” scenes in Ad Astra satirize the tentpole spectacle that Roy (and us) have become desensitized to, and the scenes play as cold by design. But, with such a traditionalist ending, it ends up working better in theory than in execution.
It’s when Gray posits nihilism and hope as one and the same that the first half plays even rougher in retrospect. Words begin to bleed into one another, and basic communication starts to feel alien. It makes for a flawed film, yes, and it sometimes shows a lack of confidence. It’s also gorgeous for stretches on end, a trip off the edge that balances the banal with the breathtaking. As the lights came up, I found myself holding my torso. I wasn’t hugging myself, and it wasn’t a conscious decision to bring comfort.
Comfort, after all, implies a sense of freedom.
What Ad Astra has to offer is contentment, and what a rare feeling that is.