Given the slew of movies focusing on stranded astronauts with parent issues, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people only go into space to avoid their families.
As fascinated as filmmakers are by the dark abyss that is space, they are just as interested in stories of isolation.
The Brad Pitt lead psychological-drama-disguised-as-space-epic Ad Astra is the latest in this series of abandonment-space-odysseys. Only this time, its motif is delivered with a dour mood layered on so thickly that it makes Batman sound gleeful.
A star in his own right, Ad Astra rests on the performance of the ageless Pitt (Brad Astra if I may indulge the reader). Astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) is tasked with assisting on a mission to rescue Earth from cataclysmic rays known as ‘The Surge’. His mission becomes more complex with news that his father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneering astronaut who hasn’t been seen for thirty years, could hold the solution to saving the world.
Old wounds reopen for Roy with the mystery behind his fathers’ disappearance leading him to go on a journey to fill an emotional void as deep as space. This meditation on abandonment hums throughout Ad Astra, with the film focusing on Brad Pitt’s internalisation of his grief and how it impacts his relationships. Being alone is just a part of the job. His father’s absence weighs heavily on the shoulders of Roy, requiring Pitt to channel deep into his emotional piggy-bank. Here is a man whose every interaction is psychologically evaluated. His perceived emotional numbness, the ultimate test of dedication to become an astronaut, succeeding to convey his detachment from emotion.
In space, no one can hear you scream. But boy, can they hear Brad Pitt complain.
Ad Astra wants so badly to be considered poetic that it makes heavy-handed efforts to convey turmoil. It talks about pain when it should stay silent. Pitt spends most of the film narrating his internal dilemma, sounding like the moody product of Voldemort meets Jim Carrey’s character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. These efforts to be profound are admirable, but flounder under the weight of their own pretentiousness. Roy is the shell of a broken man, a point so frequently made that it becomes incessant. This is by far Ad Astra’s biggest fault, with its needless inclusion detracting from Pitt’s superb physical performance.
Ad Astra functions as a monologue for Pitt, with minor roles from Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland serving little more than exposition purposes to keep Roy moving. Their presence is fleeting and begs to question whether their inclusion was necessary. Even more bizarre are the disjointed points about love transcending science. A point that left a sour note in the minds of viewers when we heard it first in Interstellar.
Ad Astra is a beautifully composed film production wise, with director James Gray’s minimalist eye coming from the less-is-more school of thought. His ability to harmonise both score, being both soothing and distressing, with production design, sometimes vast and sometimes empty, is nothing short of exquisite. What Gray accomplishes in technical elements, achieving a level of subtlety that is sold through the reflection of light on a helmet, is not only stunning (the velvet blue of space is out of this world) but works as an evocative visualisation of Roy’s emotional journey. If only the restraint demonstrated here in the production design could be applied in the Gray and Ethan Gross’ dialogue.
Gray makes no effort to be subtle in his disapproval of how humans mistreat the environment. Humanity hasn’t learnt from the mistakes of the present and now must resort to (destroy) other planets to save our species. ‘Here we go again. Fighting over resources’ remarks Roy as he lands on the hottest tourist destination; the moon. Efforts by humans in Ad Astra to abandon-our-earth-ship speaks to the irreparable damage handed to the environment and our unwillingness to change; as though our self-destructive behaviours were as cyclical as the Earths’ orbit around the sun. Gray’s agenda is pointed and timely, with there currently being a climate-crisis strike in Australia.
Daddy-issues galore, Ad Astra is not the adaptation of the Halo video game it pretends to be for marketing purposes. It is an art-house production that has run away with a blockbuster budget. One that when in full bloom represents an extremely personal albeit unpolished tale about grief that is brought to life by a director in need of a hug.
Director: James Gray
Cast: Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga
Writers: James Gray, Ethan Gross