Ad Astra follows a well-worn trail to the final frontier
Like his previous film, The Lost City of Z, writer/director James Gray has made a new riff on Heart of Darkness. At the heart of all three stories are stoic men compelled to journey into the unknown based on some internal compass. While Z was based on historical events (and adapted well from the non-fiction book of the same name), Gray moves his story off Earth entirely, setting this journey out among our solar system. How one reacts to Ad Astra will likely depend on how the film’s central father/son story resonates with you.
The film opens with a thrilling sequence where Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is thrown from a space station due to some kind of space power surge cloud. McBride not only seems to have The Right Stuff–the icy-veined stoicism we expect from rocket jockeys–but he also has a famous father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who may have a connection to the power surge. The elder McBride was publicly declared deceased years into his mission as part of the Lima Project, a manned voyage to the outer solar system in order to take better pictures of planets beyond and try to contact extraterrestrial life. So Roy is sent to Mars to try to send a personal appeal to his father in order for Space Command to locate the source of the surge, believed to be whatever is left of the Lima Project. Thus, Roy’s Space Odyssey begins.
Like Bowman, Poole, and HAL’s voyage in Kubrick’s film, Roy’s journey is a Homeric one, with challenges both physical and psychological, and plenty of reasons for him to give up–except for the majorly important plot point that the Lima Project potentially poses an existential threat to mankind. But in watching the film, it feels like Gray is borrowing much more liberally from Kubrick’s 1968 epic as much as he is from Conrad’s novel.
In order to get from Earth to the Moon without revealing his covert mission, Roy is directed to fly commercial, so we get echoes of 2001 with Virgin substituting for Pan Am and Applebee’s and Subway instead of the Hilton and AT&T. These things feel like cheeky updates to Kubrick’s vision, reminding us how much differently the spread of capitalism is viewed in 2019 versus 1968. While Kubrick’s film seems to offer realism as inspiration to the future, Roy cracks about how disappointed his father would be in seeing the moon reduced to a commercial tourist trap. I love when films are in conversation with their genre, but Gray often feels like he is using Ad Astra to talk only to Kubrick’s film, to the point that it is distracting.
But perhaps the most frustrating thing about Ad Astra is that at about three-quarters of the way through the film, the possibilities for where the film could go feel somewhat limitless. And informed by Gray’s extended homages and winks (there’s even an angry ape or two!), the film set my expectations to mind blowing, or at least existential/metaphysical. But even with some sci-fi elements, the film tells you what it is going to do, and then does it, which ultimately results in an unsatisfying story.
Exacerbating this is the impossibly high bar that is set for these “middle-aged man needs to resolve outstanding emotional issues related to his father” and “middle-aged man has an experience that both justifies and causes him to question his aloofness” stories. It is such well-trod territory that the film has to be something truly special to resonate beyond. Sure, tying the elder McBride to Colonel Kurtz is a cute choice, but it doesn’t feel like it offers anything Brad Pitt’s character couldn’t have unearthed with decent therapy, other than it’s obviously more dramatic to seek emotional resolution across the planets.
While Ad Astra is a wonderful-looking movie with some stylish details and some genuinely thrilling sequences, there’s ultimately nothing underlying this movie. Even the parts that felt like they ought to resonate fell short of many other films with the same themes, or the same kind of characters. This is no First Man or The Right Stuff, nor is it Inside Llewyn Davis in outer...space, or any other film where indie darlings work through their father issues. This is a step down from Gray’s previous film, The Lost City of Z, which impressively recontextualized a classic film genre through a postcolonial lens. Ad Astra ultimately amounts to Bad Dad: In Space.
As Astra opens in Philly theaters today.