Ad Astra is a story of fathers and sons. It is about the way men are out of touch with their feelings because kindness and intimacy were never modeled for them. It is about confronting the emptiness of space and reckoning with our place within the universe. It is exactly the film I feared it would be.
A legendary astronaut, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), led an expedition to Neptune, choosing the planet’s orbit as a base of operations in the search for intelligent life. Clifford and his team went missing and were presumed dead. Years later, his son has followed in his footsteps. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a decorated officer in Space Command, famed for his almost inhuman ability to keep cool under pressure. Early in the film Roy learns that his superiors believe his father is still alive. They also suspect that he is the source of a series of electric surges reverberating through space and killing thousands on Earth. Roy is tasked with finding the father who left him when he was just a child.
In The Lost City of Z, Gray’s previous film, British explorer Percy Fawcett misses large chunks of his son’s life while searching for a mythic city in the Amazon. When he embarks on his final expedition, however, he is accompanied by his son. Together, they venture into the unknown and ultimately surrender themselves to the transcendent. Perhaps Gray didn’t want to repeat himself. Instead, he fashions Clifford into a cut-rate Colonel Kurtz, a once heroic man driven mad by his efforts to make sense of the world. As the narrative progresses, the extent of his madness becomes more and more clear. Eventually, we learn that he killed his entire crew when they tried to return to Earth. The disturbing revelations about his father unearth feelings of abandonment in Roy, causing him in turn to further consider his own failings as a man. Throughout his mission, he regularly undergoes psychological evaluations lest the slightest bit of emotion interfere with his ability to perform. These tests force him to do what he has always done – suppress, compartmentalize, push forward.
The film takes its title from the Latin phrase “per aspera ad astra,” meaning “through hardship to the stars.” John Steinbeck riffed on that idiom with one of his own: “ad astra per alia porci,” very roughly translating to “to the stars on the wings of a pig.” Symbolized by his pigasus, Steinbeck coined the term to describe his own limitations as a writer. As he put it, he was earthbound but aspiring. Though even more grounded, the same is true of James Gray. His fantastic string of films preceding Ad Astra (Two Lovers, The Immigrant, and The Lost City of Z) all strain to get where they are going, but frequently arrive at moments of sublime artistry. The Immigrant tells the story of a Polish woman forced into prostitution after arriving in America in the early 20th Century. It is a startlingly passionate story of grace and forgiveness, deeply rooted in Catholicism. It was my introduction to Gray’s cinema and remains my favorite film of his. Though less explicitly religious, The Lost City of Z’s awe and reverence for creation points to something outside the natural world. Even with their sometimes creaky and disjointed narratives, these films are so aspirational that any flaws are easily forgiven. They speak to needs so infrequently met by modern cinema. They set their eyes on things far beyond the material, and even if they don’t always succeed, their pursuit is immensely valuable.
Another phrase comes to mind, taken from Robert Browning and quoted in The Lost City of Z, capturing a similar idea: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
The only problem is that Gray doesn’t believe in a heaven of any kind. I’ve told this story before, but at a Q&A for The Lost City of Z, I asked the director if the protagonist’s search for the transcendent was what drew him to the story. He answered matter-of-factly that he is an atheist. The cinema is his church, etc., etc. I was more disappointed by the flippant answer than Gray’s worldview. Whatever he believed, he was still making beautiful films. But with Ad Astra, his views assert themselves, and they undermine what previously made him interesting.
I’ve talked about the spirituality of Gray’s earlier films, but another quality is missing. A lifelong fan of opera, Gray once defined “operatic” as a sincere commitment to emotion. Two Lovers and The Immigrant embraced melodrama, heightening emotions without losing their truth. In many ways, Ad Astra falls into the very thing that it critiques. It is too emotionally subdued for its own good, rationally discussing toxic masculinity with endless, suffocating voiceover. It knows from the beginning exactly what it wants to say about masculinity, telegraphing its message early and often. But it never tests its own argument, nor explores its dimensions. Men bury their feelings, but that was never a problem Gray’s characters had before. Which makes me wonder – which is better? To simply identify a problem or to offer a counter argument, to depict a better way of living? It needn’t be one or the other, but Ad Astra sadly only really has room for the former.
Earlier this year I wrote about High Life, another auteurist piece of science fiction, where I praised the film’s world view in comparison to Interstellar, yet another auteurist sci-fi film. I don’t like Interstellar very much, but one moment stands out as I write this review. Matthew McConaughey plays the absentee father in that film, heading off to space to save the world and leaving his family behind. In one scene he watches his children grow up over several decades’ worth of video messages and he weeps. I always admired that moment. How often do characters truly cry in films, especially men? It’s an ugly, uncomfortable thing. We much prefer misty eyes and angry outbursts from our characters. Brad Pitt offers a fine performance here, but he’s never asked to do more than sit there and stoically contemplate his emotional dysfunction.
Ad Astra never reaches. It never aspires. As a result, it is such a small version of what it could be. It pummels the audience with simplistic critiques of masculinity, never broadening its scope beyond them until the very end. It takes a look at the cosmos and quickly decides that the lack of intelligent life proves the absence of a creator. The very thing that drove Clifford mad is easily accepted by his son. The world is empty, he decides, and all we are left with is each other. But the film devotes such little time to its relationships. The narrative is full of almost comically misguided detours, delaying the final confrontation between father and son. When they finally do meet, it almost redeems itself. One scene in particular offers a tender depiction of the way parent-child relationships reverse late in life. Clifford is evil, but he is also old and senile. And Roy discovers that he still loves him. For a moment, this stirring grace note offers a compelling way to live, regardless of whether or not there is a God. We must acknowledge our smallness and loves those around us even when they fail to do the same. It is a valuable lesson, but it fails to resonate because it isn’t given the room it deserves. It settles for less where it matters most. For once, Gray’s reach doesn’t exceeds his grasp, and Ad Astra is all the worse for it.