Movie review: Ad Astra
James Gray probes the hero myth through a father-son story that casts Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones as strangers trying to find a meaningful connection in the existential void.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler
Directed by: James Gray
Running time: 2 hrs 2 mins
By Katherine Monk
I think I know what it feels like to be a man now. And frankly, it seems really lonely.
Sure, Ad Astra is a Brad Pitt movie set in the near-future. It tells the story of a heroic father who headed off to the stars with great hopes of advancing the human race, and a son eager to follow in his footsteps. But when this two-hour sci-fi art film was all over, the only thing it addressed on an emotional level — at least, in my eyes — was the abstract idea of masculinity.
In fact, this latest film from the otherwise underwhelming James Gray (Lost City of Z, The Yards, Two Lovers) feels like a thought poem set to the images of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Every scene becomes a stanza on manhood, every shot a gendered word.
It’s hard to explain, but consider Brad Pitt. No other actor of this generation embodies the all-American ideal as well as the man who seduced Thelma and threatened Louise. Pitt’s blond hair and blue eyes, his strong jaw and Apollonian physique satisfy our comic book expectations of heroic manliness. He was the idealized masculine self of Fight Club, and the man who married the “girl next door” before spawning a brood with the ultimate female sex symbol.
…This latest film from the otherwise underwhelming James Gray (Lost City of Z, The Yards, Two Lovers) feels like a thought poem set to the images of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Every scene becomes a stanza on manhood, every shot a gendered word.
Brad Pitt is the man men want to be. So even before he dons the bubble helmet and the orange flight suit of an astronaut in Ad Astra, he’s already on the optimal flight path of masculine identity. Once James Gray’s meditative epic kicks in, however, he becomes the manly ideal on booster rockets.
Pitt plays Roy McBride, a space command specialist stationed on an antenna that rises into Earth’s lower orbit. In the opening minutes of the movie, an electrical charge from outer space causes a cascade of explosions that disable the antenna, and send McBride tumbling toward terra firma.
We hear him processing the events as they unfold, briefing command on his current status without so much as a hint of panic in his voice as he reaches terminal velocity. Roy McBride possesses a professional detachment that allows him to focus on the job at hand without emotional distractions. He’s the epitome of cool, calm and collected.
The doctors are in awe: Not once did his heart rate rise above normal. Roy McBride is mission focused, prompting comparisons with his father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) — a so-called hero of the space program who ventured beyond Neptune hoping to find proof of intelligent extra-terrestrial life.
Roy’s father disappeared years ago, leaving he and his mother to navigate the world of humans alone, but setting Roy’s destiny in motion — and establishing an invisible father-son bond based on an ability to be entirely self-contained, a spacesuit floating in the void, yet tethered to something.
The elusiveness of human connection is what lies at the core of Ad Astra. Roy’s father wanted to search outward, ever outward, for a deeper understanding of life. Yet, Roy, left behind as a child and now in full pursuit of the man who heroically disappeared into the stars, is beginning to understand how fruitless the search may have been. Perhaps, everything his father looked for out there was actually at his fingertips the whole time.
The elusiveness of human connection is what lies at the core of Ad Astra.
Yes. There’s a hokey edge to the material, because the context of “space hero” demands it. We watch stern-faced generals sit around the star-chamber and tell the young major his father, assumed dead, may be responsible for the cataclysmic power surges on Earth. And we watch brave Roy assume a dangerous mission into the wilds of the moon frontier, onto the underwater oceans of Mars, and into the outer reaches of the solar system.
That’s a lot to ask of any man. But with Brad Pitt in the role of Roy, we easily believe he’s up to the task. After all, he has to check in with the algorithmic psychiatric evaluator at regular intervals in order to continue. Because he’s honest, even-toned, and that heart rate never changes, he always passes. Roy has found a way to compartmentalize and execute the required actions.
Critically, he doesn’t talk much. Like the classic, stoic cowboy of mid-century westerns, the most important part of the performance comes down to physical presence. It’s about the way you walk into a saloon, gauge the imminent threats, and cock your pistol at lightning speed. It’s about presenting your profile to the camera, and communicating an emotional quest with a simple squint of the eyes, and a slow curl the mouth.
Like the classic, stoic cowboy of mid-century westerns, the most important part of the performance comes down to physical presence.
Pitt is always a pleasure to watch, but this time he gets to live in his own face — own his masculine beauty as part of the all-American hero role — and be the icon. He also gets a chance to use his whole body, because half the time, he’s in fake zero G, floating in convincing fashion through the claustrophobic confines of a capsule, or vast expanses of blackness.
Yet, in every gesture, every slightly downward glance, Pitt brings an echoing pathos to the frame that defines the whole movie. We’re in the void, but Pitt pulls us in with a magnetic core, and we’re with him to the very end as he seeks closure, communion and a deeper connection to the universe.
In every gesture, every slightly downward glance, Pitt brings an echoing pathos to the frame that defines the whole movie.
Gray remains as mission-focused as Roy and the mad patriarch. He keeps the plot moving without pause, and without gratuitous sci-fi flourishes. Ad Astra is billed as sci-fi thriller, but it’s a spartan art film at heart. Gray strips everything down, from the plot to the dialogue and set design. The barebones spaces reflect Roy’s emotional state — uncluttered and empty — but they also lend the movie an intellectual cleanliness, or what you might call a clean shave, because everything in this film speaks to masculine ideas, whether it’s the male-dominated cast that also includes Donald Sutherland, or the decision to keep spacecraft — even futuristic vessels — phallic in design.
We’re in a male space for the duration. And men are conditioned to strive for the heroic, to be strong and calm in the moment, and to sacrifice themselves for a larger cause without flinching. Roy is the hero myth realized, yet there’s a palpable vacancy within because the whole male hero formula resists love. Love distracts, makes men weak, makes them soft and vulnerable. So men are taught to close the air-lock and purge, leaving them in the self-contained space suit, inaccessible to the human touch.
Men are conditioned to strive for the heroic, to be strong and calm in the moment, to sacrifice themselves for a larger cause without flinching. Roy is the hero myth realized, yet there’s a palpable vacancy within because the whole male hero formula resists love.
Gray seems entirely aware of this heaving irony within the hero myth because he crafts the perfect hero in Roy, only to show him suffer in leaden silence. He traces the arc of the conqueror into the stars, only to reaffirm the importance of staying grounded in the human world, where real connections are possible, and love’s tethering force isn’t a leash — but a lifeline.
Main image: Brad Pitt stars as Major Roy McBride in James Gray’s sci-fi epic Ad Astra. Photo by Francois Duhamel courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
THE EX-PRESS, September 20, 2019