For the better part of the last decade, one after another of Hollywood's A-listers have decided to make glossy, prestigious, semi-cerebral space-set science fiction movies. Matthew McConaughey had Interstellar. Sandra Bullock had Gravity. Matt Damon had The Martian. If you want to make a mini-trend out of the phenomenon, you could throw in Amy Adams in Arrival (if you're willing to extend "space-set" to include a story about aliens coming from space), Ryan Gosling in First Man (if you substitute Apollo program dramatization for science fiction), and Sean Penn in The First (if you extend your field to include television, and also your definition of A-lister to include Sean Penn). Vague as they were about the film's events, the trailers for James Gray's Ad Astra seemed to suggest that it is now Brad Pitt's turn. That he too, wanted a star vehicle with lots of gorgeous visuals (and thus opportunities for awed reaction shots) and a plot that riffs on the themes of wonder, resilience, and the spirit of exploration.
It would be an exaggeration to say that this is not what Ad Astra has turned out to be. This is absolutely a film that revels in the stark visual of a single space-suited protagonist made small against a backdrop of endless stars, or in stunning vistas of planetary bodies and orbital installations. It absolutely features long wordless stretches in which the cosmic soundtrack strives to create a 2001-esque sense of grandeur. And it absolutely filters all those sensory feasts through Pitt's character, a soulful Competent Man whose emotional turmoil is both soothed and magnified by the scale of the setting he's been placed in, and the challenges of surviving it. But Ad Astra also feels like a film aware of its antecedents, of the movies that have come before it over the last decade and the tropes they've established. If it isn't quite a dismantling of those tropes, it is at least a more measured, more humane response to them.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut in a near future in which humanity has made some substantial progress towards colonizing the solar system. There are radio antennas that reach into the upper atmosphere, settlements on the Moon and Mars that are home to thousands of people, some of them native-born, and routine scientific exploration of the asteroid belt. Roy's father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), disappeared decades ago on a mission to the edge of the solar system to establish a station searching for signs of alien life. Roy has modeled his life and career on his father's, and is both uplifted and oppressed by the heroic figure Clifford represents to most other spacefarers. In the film's opening scene, a series of EM pulses cause widespread damage on Earth, and Roy's superiors inform him that his father is not only known to still be alive, but is believed to be the cause of the pulses. Roy is dispatched to Mars to send a message to his father, which kicks off an episodic, Heart of Darkness-esque journey that ultimately leads him to Neptune, and the lost mission.
Pitt dominates the film's visuals, with many indoor scenes shot in a tight focus on his face, leaving everything beyond him slightly blurred. It's a device that stresses not only his centrality to the story but his sense of alienation, the fact that he is as adrift on land and among people as he is in the vacuum of space (that most of the film's supporting characters appear only for a few scenes and are then left behind also contributes to the impression of Roy's isolation). Roy is a taciturn character, speaking mostly in an interior monologue, or when he submits to automated psychological evaluations in which he's expected to parrot catchphrases about his dedication to his mission. I've seen some complaints about Roy's omnipresent voiceover, but the film uses it to make an important point--that Roy doesn't really believe in the myth that has been spun around him. His superiors marvel at his coolness under pressure, but Roy berates himself for his emotional detachment. "I should feel something", he anxiously tells us after narrowly surviving a kilometers-long fall to earth following one of the EM pulses. And after being praised for his heroism when he agrees to go to Mars, Roy ruefully muses "as if I had a choice".
Though outwardly embodying the sort of Right Stuff ideal that has been associated with space exploration since the 60s, Roy sees himself as a cog in a machine, a loyal soldier who goes and does as he's told, and who can't function outside that framework. Ad Astra features some turns of plot that on paper make it sound almost like a pulp movie--pirates on the moon! Rabid apes in space!--but Roy's numbness, which verges on low-grade depression, dominates the film's tone. His reaction to space travel and off-planet colonies is less wonder and more weary professionalism, with a side of disdain at how these spaces have been quickly normalized and commercialized.
One complaint that has recurred in my discussions of Ad Astra is that the movie doesn't really need to be set in space. This is trivially true when you consider how much of its structure and plot have been borrowed from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, and the truth of it is brought further home when the film takes significant liberties with the realities of space travel in order to prop up its story--chiefly, a journey from Mars to Neptune that takes only three months. But to me, Ad Astra justifies its setting in the way that it uses it to comment on so many of the space movies that have come before it. Roy and Clifford are both exaggerated, negative variants on the trope of the abandoning, neglectful astronaut father, his gaze so fixed on the stars that he forgets his earthly responsibilities. Roy embodies this type reluctantly--he has chosen not to have children, and though his marriage (to a nearly-silent Liv Tyler) collapsed, he seems to realize that this was his fault, and to regret it--and Clifford almost gleefully. His messages to a young Roy from the early years of his mission are almost pathetically impersonal, with dry facts about the mission substituting for any attempt at emotional connection. When we finally meet Clifford, he positively crows to Roy that he never loved him or his mother, and couldn't wait to escape them into a "worthy" pursuit. It feels like a direct rebuke to the way that films like Interstellar or First Man aggrandized their protagonists' decision to prioritize exploration over their families.
Pop culture has a soft spot for explorers (male ones in particular) and tends to treat their shirking of personal responsibilities as understandable or even heroic when it's in the pursuit of new frontiers. In the miniseries The First, Penn's character treats having to give up his spot on a Mars mission after his daughter experiences a mental health crisis as a profound sacrifice, almost a psychic wound, and can't wait for the opportunity to leave her again. And yet the show views him as a grand, heroic figure, extolling his leadership qualities even as he fails as a father. Ad Astra is duly contemptuous of both such an attitude and the people it's directed at. Clifford, in particular, is depicted at first as demonic, and then, as we see how years of isolation and the failure of his quest for alien life have diminished him, as pathetic, so unfit for human society that he'd rather die than go home with his son.
When I wrote about The Martian, I observed with some skepticism its protagonist's ability to withstand months of total isolation with no psychological deterioration, and wondered whether the film wasn't papering over an anti-social personality. Roy, in contrast, is both aware and ashamed of his capacity to withstand solitude, and his difficulty connecting to people. His inner monologue berates himself for selfishness even as it recoils from any possibility of connection ("don't touch me", he thinks in the film's opening scene, when a colleague makes a friendly gesture as he's about to go into space). That Roy spends so much of the film in a spacesuit feels fitting, because there's a barrier between him and everyone he meets, and he both needs that barrier and despises himself for that need.
It's particularly noteworthy how ambivalently Ad Astra treats Roy's hypercompetence, effortless sense of command, and coolness under pressure. The film is made up of set-pieces which often involve Roy and his companions being placed in sudden, mortal danger, such as a dune-buggy journey across the lunar plain that turns into a race for survival, or a rescue mission to a research vessel in the asteroid belt. But it eventually becomes impossible not to notice that despite Roy's quick instincts and refusal to panic, the only thing he ever achieves is his own survival. He never manages to save anyone else. In the film's most shocking scene, Roy, who has been benched from the mission to Neptune to find and kill his father, breaks into the departing ship as it takes off. The crew react violently and Roy tries to defuse the situation, but he's so much more capable than them, and they are so panicked by his presence, that they all end up dead. It feels like a deliberate rebuke to the cult of competence that characterizes so many space stories, a rejection of Roy's perennial coolness under pressure. Despite his capabilities, and his genuine desire to be of use to others, he only ever manages to be an instrument of death, or a witness to it.
All of this leads to a long, hallucinatory sequence in which Roy makes his lonely way to Neptune, finally meeting the limits of even his prodigious capacity to withstand solitude. Which leads to his meeting with Clifford, in which he fails to save his father from himself. Even the ostensible purpose of the mission, to save humanity from Clifford, turns out to be a red herring: the EM pulses are not an intentional attack but the result of a malfunction caused after the last of Clifford's crew mutinied in the face of the ultimate failure of his mission. "There's nobody out there", Clifford despondently tells Roy, who finally makes the conceptual leap he has teetered on the verge of for the entire length of the movie: "that means all we have is each other". After Clifford commits suicide, Roy considers doing the same, but rejects the idea. Newly-motivated, he turns his ship around and back to Earth, eager to rejoin humanity.
You might argue that this is a rather flimsy message on which to hang a film as ponderous and self-important as Ad Astra, and I would have to agree--when I left the theater, my first comment was "that was a whole lot of movie over not very much at all". I can't help but compare Ad Astra to Gravity, which similarly treats space as a metaphor for emotional isolation, and the rigors of surviving it as the cost of breaking through grief and pain in order to live again. But it's notable how a middlebrow crowdpleaser like Gravity makes this point so much more effectively and successfully than an art-house project like Ad Astra. There is nothing in Gray's film that matches the sense of triumph one feels when Bullock's character decides not to give up and drift off into death from hypoxia, or the shock of her first steps back on Earth's soil.
Having said that, I still have a soft spot for how Ad Astra tells this story, and especially for Roy himself. A lot of reviewers have dinged the character's journey as yet another instance of Hollywood's love affair with daddy issues, but to my mind this criticism ignores how Ad Astra works to detach that trope from a lot of its more poisonous attributes. Roy isn't made special or tragic by the loss of his father. Though he admits that he carries a lot of anger and hurt over being abandoned, he takes a mature approach to these feelings, and doesn't seek to impose them on others (well, except to the extent that he allows them to torpedo his marriage, and it must be noted that we don't get enough of a glimpse of that relationship to know how badly Roy may have treated the person closest to him). Pitt's performance, which has been dinged for its lack of affect, feels to me like a way of stressing the character's humility and self-effacement, his recognition that his pain doesn't entitle him to take up extra space in the world. When Roy finally gets an opportunity to reach out to his father, his first words to him are "Dad, I'd like to see you again", a generous, open-hearted message. And when Clifford spews his bile at him, Roy pauses a moment, then simply replies, "I still love you, Dad", and tries to save him.
The portrait that emerges from these moments is of a man with a profound capacity for kindness and compassion who has chosen a path in life that allows him very little scope for these abilities, and has therefore convinced himself that he is incapable of human connection. What makes Roy's realization of the freaking obvious at the film's end feel worthwhile is the fact that when he imagines himself as a better person with better relationships, what he wants, as his interior monologue tells us, is not to be loved or taken care of, but the opportunity to love and take of others, to be good for them as he now realizes he can be. That's not a huge message, but it's sufficiently uncommon--in films about men in general, and films about Hollywood stars in space in particular--that I'm grateful for any movie that tries to deliver it. For all its faults of self-importance, it's this core of humanity that makes me like Ad Astra, maybe even more than other, more successful space-set star vehicles.