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Interplanetary, mostly ordinary: James Gray’s ‘Ad Astra’

By Luke Goodsell
Brad Pitt’s interstellar family-therapy odyssey struggles with earthbound sentiment

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra.

Space: it used to be pop cinema’s final frontier, with films full of far-flung worlds, imaginative horizons and wild visions that audiences might never see outside their dreams. But somewhere along the way the world got small and cynical, special effects became too easy and convincing, and – apparently – a generation of dudes raised on late-20th-century blockbusters realised they had feelings they needed to explore. Now space is the place filmmakers go when they want to work through daddy issues, grieve for lost family or air out other creaky thematic concerns under shiny new guises. With apologies to the Carpenters (and Klaatu): the interplanetary has become mostly ordinary.

American filmmaker James Gray is the latest to take family therapy into orbit. His yearning new space movie, Ad Astra (in cinemas September 19), stars Brad Pitt as a hotshot astronaut sent on a mission to make contact with his missing dad (Tommy Lee Jones), an interstellar pioneer who disappeared in the outer solar system while searching for signs of intelligent life. It feels like a good match: Pitt, who also produces, remains one of the closest things America has to an old-school movie star, and Gray makes thoughtful, New Hollywood–indebted work that adheres to a classical narrative paradigm. The latter may explain why he’s found himself out of step with the market – despite one bona fide masterpiece (Two Lovers, 2008) and a handful of richly crafted, emotionally acute films (We Own the Night, 2007; The Immigrant, 2013), Gray remains relatively unsung outside cinephile circles and, of course, the French.

In Ad Astra, it’s the near future and – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – during a “time of hope and conflict”, humanity is looking to the stars. “I always wanted to be an astronaut, for the future of mankind,” says Pitt’s Major Roy McBride, who we see refracted, like 2001: A Space Odyssey’s all-grown-up and angst-ridden star child, over the opening moments, grappling with his lonely midlife crisis. Roy is long divorced, though his ex-wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), is readily available via video screen or dappled flashback to enrich his interior life, while being afforded none of her own. “I was harsh when I should’ve been tender,” he grumbles.

Roy is stationed on the International Space Antenna – designed by Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, working in handsome 35mm, with a vertiginous, matte painterly beauty – when a freak space disturbance causes mass power outages across the globe. The source is discovered to be cosmic rays from Neptune, where Roy’s dad, Clifford McBride, vanished in an anti-matter powered ship that’s now sending ripples through the galaxy to catastrophic effect. Enlisted to make contact with his old man, Roy hitches a ride to the Moon with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, dispensing gravitas on tap), and begins to learn the truth: Dad’s gone rogue – and insane. “I am free of your moral boundaries; I have total clarity,” Jones’s voice is heard raving over audio. If the space council can’t reign him in, they’ll terminate his command.

As widely noted, it’s all very Apocalypse Now in space, with Pitt poring over Dad’s decorated dossier (including 8x10s presumably lifted from Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, which also starred Jones) and laying on gravelly, Martin Sheen–style voiceover. “Here we go again, fighting over resources,” he growls upon arrival on the Moon, though he may as well be upriver from Saigon. “What the hell am I doing here?”

Gray has made little secret of his love for New Hollywood, and Francis Ford Coppola in particular. In a recent New Yorker profile, he even reveals that he has a pasta sauce ranking system based on the veteran director’s work – a Godfather film being the gold culinary standard. Yet Coppola was no throwback classicist at heart – the Godfather movies were studio jobs, while his more radical, fascinating work was engineered for a new generation: One from the Heart (1982), Rumble Fish (1983), Bram Stokers Dracula (1992); each mixed cutting-edge tech with avant-garde ambition. Gray doesn’t have his eye on tomorrow: in the very same profile, he laments populist cinema, and says he can’t abide viewers watching films on their phones – the digital bogeyman that certain filmmakers love to invoke in a pinch.

But you can still experience ideas on a device, and for a while, at least, Ad Astra appears to be cooking some up – however familiar the recipe. Though Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross assemble the usual Kubrickian building blocks, they also imagine an almost prosaic, colonised solar system, in which the Moon has devolved into part research station, part tacky tourist destination for the wealthy, reachable via expensive Virgin Atlantic flights where in-flight comfort injections come at $125 a pop. Entrenched hierarchies persist –“You’re not authorised at this level,” an anonymous man-bun informs Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), despite the fact that she practically runs a launch base – and the Moon’s resource crisis leads to an unexpectedly thrilling buggy chase involving lunar pirates. There’s a highly disgruntled, very rabid space monkey on the loose in an abandoned ship en route to Mars, and Natasha Lyonne makes a fleeting cameo as a garrulous, mop-headed border control grunt – a spin-off just waiting to happen.

Gray is striving for something essential here: the dark passage that threatens a man terrified he’ll become his father, and the burden of a legacy that may eclipse his own. (The shadow of family has hung over his body of work, from 1994’s Little Odessa through 2016’s The Lost City of Z.) He’s also exploring a generational perspective on masculinity: the careerist boomer dad, dedicated to his mission at all costs (including his family) versus the gen-x son, who shares his alpha DNA but discovers a capacity for empathy and emotional expression. The conflict lets Pitt flex his increasingly weary features, where the once-smouldering intensity of his looks has become a sort of aggravated stillness. Whatever it is he’s leaning into, it’s becoming more compelling with age.

Still, did we really need to travel to the outer limits of the solar system for some father-son bonding? If Ad Astra’s familial themes are universal, their execution is somewhat generic, and for all its evocative cinematography and dramatic sincerity, Gray’s film struggles to reconcile its broad emotion with the spectacle, and starts to drift into a galactic funk. The film’s small-scale humanism feels deflating within the infinite possibilities of the genre, considering 2001 was envisioning life beyond humanity more than half a century ago. Even on an intimate scale, Ad Astra can’t approach the tenderness summoned by Robert Zemeckis and Jodie Foster in Contact (1997), a film that took its absent-father longing and transformed it into something truly cosmic – the departed as inter-dimensional force, at one with space and time.

To be fair, it’s hard to remember a time when space was rendered visionary on movie screens – for that you’d probably have to return to George Lucas’s maligned Star Wars prequels, and in particular Revenge of the Sith (2005), which gave us a digital pop fantasia set to a mournful opera of loss (talk about a negligent father whose single-minded actions left his family, and the galaxy, reeling.) Interstellar (2014), First Man (2018), even the technically dazzling Gravity (2013): all stories of the familial, rendered in space-age trickery. Only Claire Denis’s recent High Life (2018) – bless its chilly heart – dared peer beyond those movies’ corniness, imagining space not as some vast expanse of hope or redemption but an abyss in which humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes.   

If Ad Astra peripherally recalls High Life’s cynicism, then its overriding mandate is hope. Gray is an astute dramatist, but his writing seems to be flatter here, and worse, its big, humanity-sized sentiment risks leaving the actors stranded in unintentional comedy. Pitt’s always excelled at hypermasculine parody, but on an off day, grand drama can elude him. There’s a should-be-wrenching moment in which he shares an emotional crisis with a touch-screen console – comparing the anger of the raging space primate to that of his father, and by extension himself. As Pitt cries, “I don’t wanna be my dad,” it was all I could do to suppress a giggle (I’m also a monster, just to be clear.) And while Jones brings weight to even the slimmest of sentiments, his presence here – with his maniacal determination to prove the existence of alien life – only serves to evoke his performance in Men in Black, in which he delivers throwaway comedy lines about time and memory from an arguably more convincing wellspring of sorrow. By the time Ad Astra had wheeled out another longueur about life, love and how “we’re all we’ve got” in the universe, I was praying for the aliens to arrive, too.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra.

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