By Neil Giordano
An attempt to comment on contemporary masculinity, but without enough mind or matter to make much of an impact.
Ad Astra (screening at AMC Boston 19), aims for the stars, hoping to link itself to the vaunted tradition of cerebral movies that contemplate the spiritual plight of astronauts in outer space. There are flashes of Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, especially their stories of spatial and psychological isolation, as well as more contemporary portraits of alienation found in Cuaron’s Gravity and Nolan’s Interstellar. After all this previous work, the metaphor of space as soul-as-vacuum is a tricky terrain to mine for new meaning. Ad Astra offers something fresh in parts, yet its sometimes ham-handed treatment of the philosophical falls short of the level attained by its celebrated peers.
A burst of cosmic rays hits Earth causing mayhem and mass casualties in a still-recognizable “near future.” The “surge,” as it is called, is traced back to a long-lost spacecraft near Neptune, commanded by Great American Hero astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, seen mostly in grainy video transmissions). He was thought to have perished decades earlier when the mission lost contact with Earth. McBride’s son, Roy (Brad Pitt), an astronaut like his father, is called in by the authorities to establish contact with Dad, who may be alive and responsible for intentionally sending the surges to destroy Earth’s inhabitants (and the rest of the solar system). The young McBride travels to the Moon and Mars, and eventually to Neptune, all the while pondering the empty spaces in his life: his father’s abandonment of the family to pursue the Neptune mission, his own struggles to nurture a marriage, and his own mortality and search for meaning, given that outer space missions don’t hold the same epochal gravitas they did for his father’s generation (symbolized by a tourist-infested moon base where families can pose for alien selfies and eat at Applebee’s).
Curiously, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film’s structure — almost scene by scene — follows that of Apocalypse Now: a perilous quest not up a river but through outer space to confront a looming menace who may have lost his mind. In one of the fragmented videos from Neptune, the elder McBride proclaims, “I am beyond your moral boundaries,” as if he’s Colonel Kurtz reigning fire down upon his enemies. What’s more, the younger McBride’s voice-over narration echoes what Michael Herr penned for Coppola’s war film. Pitt’s phlegmatic delivery hints at the epistemological uncertainties of his mission and of his life, his desire to make sense of his choices. Most of all, he is processing his lingering but unexpressed pain over losing his father, and, as the movie progresses, his desire to confront him and possibly “terminate his command” (to borrow a line from Coppola).
But the tone of Ad Astra tends more toward melancholy than “the horror.” The film views outer space as beautiful emptiness, a place where the isolated mind can roam introspectively amid transcendent Emersonian splendor, thanks to the glowing cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema (who also filmed Interstellar), and the foreboding score by Max Richter.
Ultimately, though, Ad Astra is Pitt’s film, and though he’s quite good here in parts, his character’s emotional limitations are the film’s downfall. As a commentary on masculinity, Pitt’s performance recycles the stereotype of the stoic male who cannot express emotion when he most needs to. Much is made of McBride’s almost inhuman ability to keep his heart rate below 80, even in even the most stressful situations. The film serves up periodic psychological profiles, in which McBride reports, via a flat affect, about the horrors around him. He is told that he has passed and can continue his duty. There nothing revelatory about that — Pitt fails his profile test once and, in one scene, he sheds a single tear. The idea isn’t that McBride should turn into a blubbering softie by the end, but these truncated scenes of macho repression dampen our empathy for the guy. McBride has an inner life, but we don’t quite get enough of it to feel deeply for him or his predicament.
And. for a movie that tries to puncture traditional notions of masculinity, where are the fully formed female characters? Outer space isn’t always going to be a man’s world, but film seems to think so. Liv Tyler (wasted here as McBride’s estranged wife) is a cardboard cutout signifying emotional purity, and Ruth Negga’s Mars commander offers only a hint or two of the toxic climate created by the male hegemony.
Director James Gray grappled with father-son issues in his previous film, the under-appreciated The Lost City of Z (2016), and here he brings the same inquisitiveness to a grander palette. But while his artistry makes a giant visual leap in Ad Astra, the script is content to take midget strides. For comparison’s sake, Clarie Denis’s High Life, from earlier this year, provides a richer and more rewarding outer space story, laced with a deeper and more disturbing take on masculinity and gender.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.