There seems to be no reason for the title Ad Astra, meaning “to the stars,” to be in Latin, except to highlight writer–director James Gray’s elevated intentions. Deliberate, downbeat, vast in scope and theme but emotionally intimate, it evokes — at times overtly — the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact and Arrival. In particular it recalls Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and not only because of the sweeping, naturalistic visual sensibility that Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema brought to both films.
With introspective voice-over narration, religious references and resonances, daddy issues, and a stoic lead performance by Brad Pitt, Ad Astra may also put some viewers in mind of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. In fact, it feels in some ways not unlike someone’s idea of a Malick space-travel epic — in some ways, that is, except in what matters most: transcendence, which Ad Astra pointedly lacks, even repudiates. In this it most resembles Interstellar, a film I find at once attractive and frustrating in much the same way as Ad Astra.
Like Interstellar, Ad Astra is set in a near future with an endangered Earth potentially reaching a crisis point. Characters in both films look to the heavens for hope, and specifically to the possibility that contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life may hold out hope for human survival. In both films a scientist-father vanishes into the heavens, leaving behind a child who grows up to follow in the father’s footsteps, opening the door to a possible reunion. From here, the two films turn to very different emotional and thematic territory, but in one respect they converge: In the end, human contact is all we really have, and all that matters. Nolan at least sought transcendence in interconnectedness, shooting for an alternative mythic vision — one rooted in science — amid a post-religious, post-truth world of conspiracy theories and superstition. For me, at least, he failed, but I appreciate the effort.
Gray (The Immigrant; The Lost City of Z) is going for something altogether different. Ad Astra is on some level fundamentally concerned with religious questions. Occasional religious references, incidental yet conspicuous and even startling by their mere presence — a prayer to St. Christopher at the start of a journey; an overtly Christian prayer for the dead at a burial in space — point in this direction, but the deeper themes are metaphorical. From 2001 to Close Encounters to Contact, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has often served as a sci-fi metaphor for the search for the transcendent, for God. “Two possibilities exist,” declared Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay for 2001 with Stanley Kubrick. “Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Gray has cited that quotation in interviews as an inspiration for Ad Astra. That’s not all: There’s also a son’s quest for a legendary but mysterious father in the heavens who, like the aliens, may or may not be out there.
As this suggests, where Interstellar followed the father who abandons his child for the heavens, Ad Astra focuses on the child left behind. Pitt plays Roy McBride, a second-generation astronaut whose celebrated father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), led a doomed SETI mission called the Lima Project to the edge of the solar system in order to survey the universe without solar interference. Somehow disaster struck and the Lima and its crew were lost. All this is spelled out for us by Roy himself in a briefing with government officials who ask him what he knows about the Lima Project, and, in particular, who led the mission (a clumsy bit of exposition not unlike asking, say, one of Neil Armstrong’s sons what he knows about the Apollo 11 mission and who the commander was). This is unfortunately typical of the obvious, on-the-nose writing, which includes Roy explaining out loud how his extraordinary chillness and immunity to stress reflect emotional compartmentalization resulting from the loss of his father at a young age. Not incidentally, this is also why his ex-wife (Liv Tyler, in a wasted role) left him: because he doesn't know how to feel things or allow himself to depend on other people. This is all spelled out in so many words. While there’s some plot-level excuse for some of this explicitness (Roy must regularly check in with a computerized health monitor to vouch for his continued psychological well-being and mission-readiness), that doesn’t make it less heavy-handed as character development.
Then Roy learns that Clifford may still be alive — and could be somehow connected to a rash of powerful waves buffeting the Earth and causing massive electrical disruptions, one of which almost killed Roy himself. Though skeptical of this suggestion, Roy embarks on an episodic journey that takes him by stages further and further from Earth and, eventually, on a quest for the Lima in search of his father and the truth about him. What would otherwise be a long, uneventful road trip through space is periodically interrupted by moments of sudden danger — an attack by space pirates here, a rescue mission gone wrong there — with little organic connection to the main plot or themes. The main purpose of these incidental action sequences (which in interviews Gray calls “whammos,” and more or less admits are a concession to market realities) seems to be to keep casual viewers awake. In fairness, they also serve not only to continue to highlight Roy’s nerves of steel and boundless competence, but also to dispense with inconvenient characters who keep cluttering up Roy’s solitary journey, such as Donald Sutherland as an old friend of Clifford’s who is meant to accompany Roy on his trip.
By the time Roy comes to the end of his journey, his father has become such a contradictory, mythic riddle that a satisfying resolution would have to be something revelatory, larger than life. Is Clifford an enlightened mystic? A Col. Kurtz-like psychotic visionary? (Gray has also named Apocalypse Now as an inspiration.) Was he wrongly made into a hero by the establishment to protect themselves, as Ruth Negga’s character claims? Did he die after making contact with extraterrestrials, leaving the Lima in their care? Has he left the solar system to commune with life on other planets? (Spoilers follow.)
Alas. The truth is far too dull and small; the answers, like the rest of the screenplay, far too direct and explicit. We’re told in so many words the truth about Clifford and exactly what it means for orphaned Roy and his widowed mother, which, if it were really true, would not have been said like that. I can’t help wondering about the casting choices here: Between Jones and Sutherland, which would you cast as the ambiguous, possibly delusional, possibly visionary father figure in the sky, and which as the well-meaning guide who can’t ultimately go the distance with you? Jones is an immensely canny, grounded actor, which is to say there is nothing of the uncanny or otherworldly about him: no spark of mysticism, no higher calling. He’s the guy who might be willing to die for the job, but doesn’t want to push his chips forward and go out to meet something he doesn’t understand (see: No Country For Old Men). Sutherland, now: He could be the thing you don’t understand.
In the end it’s made explicit (again, too explicit) that, having worked through his daddy issues, Roy is now ready to have real human relationships. It’s a sort of an inverted Frequency, where Jim Caviezel had to reconnect fully with his lost father, even bringing him back from the grave, in order to be there for a woman. And, just like that, Tyler is there for Roy, because that’s how women are in movies like this. As unsatisfying as this is dramatically and psychologically, it’s worse metaphorically. Clifford represents both the religious impulse (SETI as man’s search for God) and in a way — as a pivotal shot clearly implies — God himself (the father in the heavens). Or, at least, an idea of God, perhaps a twisted idea. Yet, in the end, it turns out that he’s neither wise and good and mysterious nor twisted and terrifying and mysterious. He’s not mysterious at all, or even interesting. He’s just a pathetic lost soul, the latest in a long line of disappointing movie dads. I’m slightly reminded of how Philip Pullman, at the end of His Dark Materials, made the death of God (the Authority) something anticlimactic and trivial rather than a grand triumph of irreligion over religion.
When Nietzsche pronounced God dead, he saw it as an ominous, stupefying challenge to orphaned humanity. There’s an echo of that in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors in that dreadful moment when Martin Landau’s Judah realizes that having murdered his mistress isn’t the end of the world. In more recent films from Match Point to Magic in the Moonlight, Allen’s repetitive pronouncements that, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, God is still dead have become increasingly glib and weightless. Ad Astra isn’t that weightless, but there’s nothing like the terror Clarke spoke of in being either alone or not alone in the universe.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.