Director: James Gray
Starring: Brad Pitt, Liv Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones
The Venice Film Festival seems to have a thing for brooding space melodramas where blasting off from earth is less an adventure than a primal form of therapy. Last year, it was First Man, which grappled with the loss of a daughter. Now, we have James Gray's Ad Astra, where Brad Pitt (as Major Roy McBride) grapples with the absence of his father (Tommy Lee Jones). The opening text informs us that we are in the "near future", when humanity is looking to other stars for intelligent life and the promise of progress. But this sense of excitement and wonder and adventure is not what this film is about. Roy looks downright depressed when we first see him. He looks away while undergoing a "psych eval", the way we look away from people when we don't really want to engage with them, when we'd rather be left alone. "I will not allow myself to be distracted by unimportant things," he says. One of these things is his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler). When she walks out of their home, the camera's focus is on Roy, in the foreground. She's a blur somewhere in the far distance. That's probably what she is to him.
When Roy was a teenager, his father, Clifford, left on a space mission named the Lima Project. It was meant to go farther than any man had gone before, and Clifford went as far as Neptune. And then, no word. Is he dead? Is he going to appear only in flashbacks, or as a dreamy presence, the way Jodie Foster's father did in Contact? That answer will have to wait. First, Gray stages a superb set piece where power surges (later, we learn it's a series of electronic storms from outer space) damage the impossibly tall research tower that Roy has begun to descend. He goes into a free fall — and yet, his pulse rate never shoots up. Even his biology doesn't want to announce itself. The suits take note. They feel Roy is the best choice to head to the vicinity of Neptune, and see what happened to the Lima Project. That's where the electronic storms seem to come from.
We get an action scene that could have come only from the head of the director of defiantly non-action movies like Two Lovers. The chase looks like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road, but even amidst the frantic movement, there's a sense of stillness
At times, there is the sense of a conventional sci-fi outing. I'm a sucker for jargon like "uncontrolled release of antimatter" and "going to the edge of the heliosphere", and when Roy ends up on the moon — en route to Neptune — we get an action scene that could have come only from the head of the director of defiantly non-action movies like Two Lovers. The chase looks like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road, but even amidst the frantic movement, there's a sense of stillness, like it's all happening inside a snowglobe. And the sound design is spectacular. Instead of muscular booms and bangs, the explosions sound metallic. What happens when Roy enters a spacecraft that's sent out a distress signal is even stranger. Imagine a cross between a creature feature and Solaris, and you're close.
That's the mood, really. (And in Solaris, too, there was loss: a dead wife.) Roger Ebert said that the films of Andrei Tarkovksy are more like environments than entertainments, and that's certainly true of Ad Astra. It harks back to a more solemn tradition of space cinema, say, Silent Running. It's what space sounded like before George Lucas invented the lightsaber and the Stormtrooper. But here's the oddest thing. There's also the spirit of Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now. Roy's mission in search of his father echoes the search for Kurtz, especially with the incessant pensées delivered in voiceovers. "We are world-eaters." "Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding." Sometimes, it's more personal, with mini-flashbacks from Roy's life. "What happened to my dad? What did he find out there? Did it break him? Or was he already broken?"
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema keeps things grainy, and he drains the film of all happy colours — appropriately so, for this is a most nihilistic space-exploration film
This is where the film began to lose me. All this meditation is too heavy in a film whose premise isn't exactly new. There's another old-Hollywood tradition the director looks back at — the infusion of theological thought into a genre premise. Think of Cool Hand Luke, with Paul Newman as both convict and Christ-figure. But that was an anti-establishment film, and the suffering soul translated into something bigger. It's stranger to find references to a higher power amidst all the advanced science, here. When a Captain dies, prayers are uttered. Roy's father thinks he's doing "God's work". (Hence this most pretentious-sounding of pensées:
"In the end, the son suffers the sins of the father.") And let's not forget the name of Roy's wife: Eve. No wonder she left. All this film's Adam wants is to meet his Maker.
Ad Astra looks fantastic, more environment than entertainment. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema keeps things grainy, and he drains the film of all happy colours — appropriately so, for this is a most nihilistic space-exploration film. (You'll find out at the end.) Even Brad Pitt is shot unflatteringly, the camera going right up to his lines and skin flaps. If you remember the blonde sun god from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this is the actor at the other end of the spectrum. He's terrific. He really sells the transformation from unflappable space hero to hyper-emotional daddy's little boy. He even makes those damned voiceovers work… well, almost. But you wish the script had done an equal amount of the heavy lifting. Life cannot thrive in a vacuum. Neither can a performance.