It’s been a long wait for those of us wondering whether Brad Pitt would look good in a spacesuit. In 2002, he pulled out of Darren Aronofsky’s $70m fantasy The Fountain a few weeks before shooting was due to begin, causing the production to collapse. (When it was finally made with Hugh Jackman on a much-reduced scale, the figure “2001” seemed to refer not only to its main influence but also its budget.)
In Ad Astra, we finally have lift-off. Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut whose pulse rate never accelerates, not even during an accident that sends him tumbling out of space and back to earth, falling the entire length of one of the pylons which reaches up from the ground and into the stars like Jack’s beanstalk.
Roy’s father is Clifford McBride, pioneer of the Lima Project, which was set up to comb the farthest reaches of space for alien life. Roy is greeted by complete strangers as “the son of a legend”, though the last message he received from Clifford was 27 years ago, from somewhere beyond Mars. Since then, not so much as a postcard.
But what’s this? A series of powerful blasts from deep in space have led the top brass to conclude that Clifford may still be up there, wreaking havoc like the giant at the top of the beanstalk. If only there were a level-headed astronaut who could be dispatched to find him. It might also be a plus if that astronaut had an emotional connection with Clifford, and perhaps harboured some abandonment issues that needed to be worked though with the old man. But where to find such a person?
The writer-director James Gray specialises in brooding tales of fraught families (The Yards, We Own the Night), though until now they’ve been earthbound and haven’t usually revolved around a taciturn figure with only his internal monologue for company. Gray is so adept at arranging groups of characters on screen and patiently dissecting their conflicting loyalties, that the emphasis in Ad Astra on a single introspective man puts him at a disadvantage. Narration isn’t drama and there are only so many rhetorical questions Roy can ask (“What did my father find there? Did it break him? Or was he broken already?”) before he starts to sound like Carrie Bradshaw in space.
Lighting and set design provide a piquancy missing from the script. At the Mars base where Roy records a message for Clifford, the frosted glass floor is lit from below, the walls built from undulating foam rubber slates; when he approaches the microphone, he might be about to cut a 45 for Joe Meek. Later he is taken to a “comfort room” where nature footage plays on every surface, so that he’s surrounded by migrating geese or dwarfed by the stamens of flowers. In another location, he is given disturbing news about his father while the atmospheric lights keep making their regular soothing changes undaunted. The mood lighting can’t read the mood in the room.
Action is used sparingly but effectively. There’s a tense buggy chase on the moon, and while it may be some time before the lunar surface gets its own Bullitt, it is still a curiously balletic sight when one crashing vehicle takes an age to pirouette through the air and come to rest in a yawning crater. Fans of Alien will think they know what’s on the cards when the crew makes a detour to answer a distress signal, though what lies in wait is more surprising and menacing than your common or garden face-hugger. A face-hugger would be a tonic compared to this.
The goal for Roy is not simply to find his father but to overcome his own fear of emotional engagement; to live a fulfilling life, he must, to use the final word heard on screen, “submit”. Repression and its consequences reach all corners of the universe. Mood-stabilisers are handed out during space travel, and visitors to Mars are greeted by a poster advertising counselling services.
Even allowing for this plaintive mood, it feels perverse of Gray to skim over so many areas of interest or promise. The identity of the actor cast as Clifford might profitably have been concealed until the last moment, much as Harry Dean Stanton was when he played the long-lost brother in The Straight Story, but there is plenty of notice here that it will be Tommy Lee Jones’s saturnine face waiting at the other end of the galaxy. By the time he turns up in person, those eye-bags hold no mystery.
At least he has a role, which is more than can be said for Liv Tyler as the wife driven away by Roy’s remoteness, or Ruth Negga as the colleague whose connection to the mission hides a more compelling story than the one we’re stuck with. There’s no place in this future for women, even once the imagery becomes explicitly natal. When Roy cuts his own umbilical cord, it is Clifford who is attached to the other end of it. Emerging blearily from the hatch of his spacecraft, it is three male midwives who “deliver” him during his rebirth.
Expeditions to Mars are all very well, but Ad Astra is only really interested in reaching the planet Closure, with its twin moons of father and son. That’s not enough to hang a movie on, even one as handsome as this.
Ad Astra (12A)
dir: James Gray
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control