Release Date: September 20th, 2019
Director: James Gray | MPAA Rating: PG-13 | LeavittLens Rating: 8/10
In watching a film adorned with the Latin maxim “to the stars,” one might
expect to drift into transcendent spectacle, to encounter an endeavor akin to the
immensity of space itself. Yet in James Gray’s Ad Astra, there remains a contrarian intimacy, a universally relatable tale tucked into the midst of space travel grandiosity. To be sure, Gray does not lack in his display of the splendor and beauty
of space; indeed, the film provides perhaps the most visually stunning depiction of
the cosmos we’ve received on screen to date, and that is not without a slew of recent
competitors (The Martian, Gravity, and Interstellar, to name a few). However, Gray
expertly utilizes the magnificence of the setting in order to send the audience
immediately inward. Though it may launch us across billions of miles towards the
furthest grasp of human achievement, this is a film principally focused on something
far more mysterious and fleeting: the human condition.
Ad Astra opens by introducing Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) an astronaut at the peak of his craft, albeit at the expense of his wife (Liv Tyler), who remains separated from him due to his oft distant, wandering mind. Roy is tasked with a classified mission to research the source of recent electrical oddities that are taking the lives of thousands on earth in the form of power surges. This mission involves his
presumably deceased astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones), adding a personal intrigue to the operation.
Roy’s journey through space can certainly be seen as just that: Gray paints
vivid and vibrant pictures of his galactic excursion, and—though the pace does slow
in the latter third—complements it with well-crafted tension and action. The film is
as much about Roy’s own internal demons, though, which become increasingly
exposed as he moves deeper into space, and farther from home. Despite the wonder of the setting, there is a certain melancholy that permeates each scene. With a flurry of
close-ups, Gray brings out the best in Pitt, allowing the complexity of powerful
emotion to pour through in welling eyes, quivering brows, and stoic glances. Pitt
shines in this role, and his work repeatedly serves as a reminder of his tremendous
talent, not that we needed it given his recent work in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. His display of a son on an adventure to find his father, and the existential
questions and purpose of such an expedition, is at once universal and intimately
personal. Roy is sent inward as much as he is sent outward, identifying the
gravity of generational inheritance and carving his own identity from the rubble of sins and desires he is tethered to. This may happen in an underground lake on Mars, or in the gravity of Neptune, but one thing is for certain: it is always happening inside Roy.
In one sense, this is a story that could be told anywhere, at any time. Yet the vacuum of space ultimately removes peripheral distractions throughout the film: the potent isolation leaves us, as an audience, with just one man and his thoughts much of the time. Roy narrates the film, regularly inviting the audience into his mind, and he spends a large portion of his journey millions of miles from other humans; space gives him the space to evaluate his own inner life. The result is a film that can effectively critique many flaws of the human character—the Promethean spirit of achievement at the expense of relationship, the inadequacy of data to quantify emotional and spiritual complexity, the self-destruction and entropy central to our beings, etc.—from the view of the main character without becoming preachy or overtly polemical. It is Roy’s experience, his own emotional turmoil, that enables this critique. Consider the requirement of psychological tests for each astronaut within the film: while the data quantified in these measurements may imply a readiness for their work, it becomes clear that specific scenarios within the job require non-quantifiable humanism, and many who passed the evaluations prove unfit in the rigors of the job. Indeed, for Roy himself, no amount of psychological measuring was able to adequately prepare him for the trauma and challenge of facing his own sonly angst. The data could not quantify his own ability to accomplish his mission, for it is unable to quantify what it means to be human.
This sort of conflict in our own humanity echoes across the entire narrative
of the film, as much in the background as the foreground. The commercialization of
the moon, tribal conflicts perpetuated just as they were on earth, and the segmentation of parts of new planets in accordance with earth’s borders, all reveal an innate humanness, even amongst the stars. An inherent assumption of modernism is the belief that humans are constantly improving, developing themselves towards an eventual utopia as they increase in knowledge of themselves and the world. Yet Ad Astra shows that even in some of the most advanced work of humanity—space travel—we find that little about us has changed. In this sense, Ad Astra holds up a mirror within its screen; it asks a resounding and sobering question of each of us. What will we do when we achieve what we desire, when we travel to the stars, and yet find ourselves incredibly unchanged?