Published On: Tue, Sep 17th, 2019

The gloriously surreal space epic Ad Astra is half a great movie

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Director James Gray’s lush new space opera Ad Astra is essentially two parallel films. One is a visually inventive science fiction odyssey that imagines near-future space travel as the new Wild West frontier. The other is a tepid father / son drama that Gray and his co-writer, Ethan Gross, don’t even try to elevate above the most threadbare clichés. The latter film doesn’t entirely drag down the former, although it seems to be trying its ready best. That does mean, however, that Ad Astra is poised to kick-start the most passionate style-vs.-substance debate cinephiles have had in years. Individual viewers will probably find that where they fall on that well-worn cinematic divide will determine how much they appreciate this visually breathtaking, emotionally inert drama.

Either way, Ad Astra absolutely demands to be seen on the big screen — preferably the biggest one available, coupled with the loudest sound system. Set in the near future, where some degree of space travel has been normalized, Gray pulls from real-world imagery of astronauts and space travel, but bends them toward the surreal. Astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is introduced as part of the crew of the “International Space Antenna,” a behemoth spire that extends into Earth’s upper atmosphere. To start his morning’s work, he steps over the edge of a platform and descends a ladder as the Earth looms below him like a marbled ocean. It’s a heart-stopping image, even before the film moves into its first proper action sequence.

Coming at the end of the decade, Ad Astra (“to the stars” in Latin) is in many ways a perfect capstone to the past 10 years of space-set storytelling. Visually, it combines the best of Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian, and First Man, with plenty of callbacks to classic space fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, and Solaris. The trick is how effortlessly Gray mixes those references while elevating Ad Astra’s visual language with its own identity. He has a particular gift for capturing size and scope, contrasting tiny spaceships against massive planets the way 19th-century art of the sublime used small human figures in vast natural landscapes.

Ad Astra regularly delivers the rush of inventive new ideas on film, from a rover chase over disputed territory on the Moon to a mayday mission that briefly turns into a horror sequence with a truly unexpected endpoint. And for all the stunning zero-gravity imagery Gray indulges in — both within spaceships and out in hard vacuum — he knows that simple ideas can be just as striking. When Roy lands on the Moon, he winds up at an airport-like terminal, complete with gift shops and an escalator. It’s enjoyably uncanny.

Roy’s trip to the Moon is the first stop on a top-secret mission assigned by Space Comm — a militarized, powerful version of NASA. Deadly energy blasts known as “The Surge” are threatening human life, and Space Comm thinks they might have something to do with Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut commander who left on a deep-space mission 30 years ago and never returned. Though Clifford and his crew were reported dead in action, and hailed as heroes for their pioneering attempts to locate alien life, Space Comm has reason to believe Roy is still alive near Neptune, and that his experiments are causing The Surge. So they ask Roy to travel to Mars to send a personal transmission to the father he hasn’t seen since he was 16 years old.

Photo: Francois Duhamel / Twentieth Century Fox

As Roy sets off on his journey, Ad Astra becomes a space-set riff on Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, and therefore on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s also a masterclass in worldbuilding. Exposition unfolds naturally and subtly, often through visuals alone, or through casual conversation. Unfortunately, Gray and Gross (a former Fringe writer) don’t bring that same effortlessness to their character-building. Roy’s monotone voiceover narration bluntly spells out everything he’s thinking, sometimes as part of computerized psych evaluations, and sometimes just because he feels the urge to deliver a vague platitude like, “In the end, the son suffers from the sins of the father.” Though Roy’s stoicism leads to some thrilling action sequences where he’s able to keep calm in a crisis, his taciturn nature starts to seem less like an engaging storytelling choice, and more like plain bad writing.

For instance, when Roy is alone on a long-haul space mission, he alternates between watching an old message from his emotionally distant dad, and a breakup video from his emotionally frustrated ex-wife (Liv Tyler). It’s such a baldfaced indulgence of tortured-man movie tropes, it almost feels like a full-on parody. In a supporting cast full of underutilized players, including Donald Sutherland, Preacher’s Ruth Negga, and a quick cameo from Natasha Lyonne, Tyler’s role is so painfully underwritten, she must have been cast solely for the meta connection to her previous role as an astronaut’s girlfriend in Armageddon.

Photo: Francois Duhamel / Twentieth Century Fox

Tommy Lee Jones also previously played an astronaut in Space Cowboys, which also doesn’t make his character any richer. His character, who appears largely in ominous video recordings, is never more than a cipher. That has emotional weight when Roy is living in the shadow of his father’s oversized public legacy. It has less when he’s pondering the personal nature of their relationship without any specifics about what that relationship was like. Like a lot of Hollywood writers, Gray and Gross make the mistake of assuming that fraught father / son relationships are universally relatable, and that it’s unnecessary to give their central one any specificity or depth.

The tricky thing about a film like Ad Astra is that it’s easy to defend its flaws as intentional storytelling choices, to argue its emotional blankness is designed to reflect its thematic interest in stoicism, abandonment, and alienation. Ad Astra is clearly using space travel and astronaut emotional compartmentalization as a metaphor for the challenges men face in letting go of bottled-up baggage and embracing vulnerability.

Photo: Francois Duhamel / Twentieth Century Fox

Yet unlike Gray’s previous two projects — the underappreciated The Immigrant and the quietly glorious The Lost City Of Z — Ad Astra doesn’t locate much humanity beneath the surface of its interior protagonist. Pitt is perfectly cast as a hyper-competent, buttoned-up astronaut, but there’s only so much he can do with a script that asks big questions about human nature, yet never seems to have a basic grasp on human behavior.

Ad Astra will work best for viewers who either don’t care whether its visual wonders contain a compelling story, or those who are willing to project their own emotional profundity onto the material. Gray certainly leaves room to mine Ad Astra’s dreamy elusiveness for complexity. Biblical allusions abound, alongside references to Greek mythology (Roy spends most of his journey on a rocket named Cepheus — a major player in the myth of Andromeda and Poseidon, aka Neptune in Roman parlance). In the end, however, Ad Astra offers little more than ponderous vagueness masquerading as depth. In his imaginative direction, Gray masterfully elicits wonder, terror, tension, and catharsis. It’s too bad the emotionality of his visuals never translate into a fully emotionally satisfying film.

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