Director James Gray’s latest science fiction tale, AD ASTRA, about a son in search of his long lost father through the expanse of space, isn’t for everyone. It’s deliberately paced, exorbitantly meditative and emotionally trying, though it’s never listless, and it certainly isn’t without purpose. Moving along with a quiet beauty that borders on an almost haunting spirituality, AD ASTRA mirrors the likes of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and more recently Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, two epics that tether space to isolation, longing and often the necessity to discover something, anything out there in the perilous void that is our galaxy.
AD ASTRA asks you to trust in its journey, one that’s more concerned with what kind of person is so willing to risk everything in the discovery than simply dazzling you in the magnificence of their voyage. It’s a film that’s equal parts character study and existential expedition, never feeling content to simply exist within the confines of what the science fiction genre has to offer, though if you’re willing to take a giant leap, the emotional payoff is, simply put, out of this world.
At the heart of AD ASTRA’s expedition is Major Roy McBride (played by Brad Pitt), a devotee to the exploration of space who has given almost every inch of himself in order to become who his father, Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) – a famous astronaut whose photo hangs next to the likes of Neil Armstrong – wanted him to be. Roy is of sound physical and mental body, taking psych evaluations intermittently through SpaceCom, a NASA like subset that constantly monitors and analyzes their astronauts, almost stripping them of any discernible emotions. He states during his evaluations that he does not dream, though he often is lost in thought about his estranged wife Eve (Liv Tyler in a small yet indispensable role), who couldn’t take Roy’s constant absence. After an immense power surge nearly kills Roy – in what is arguably the film’s most dizzying display of action – and threatens to wipe out humanity, he must venture to the far reaches of Neptune in order to confront his father, who has been missing for 16 years and may be the cause of these surges.
In an interview with The Jewish Chronicle back in March of 2017 (discussing his previous film, The Lost City of Z), James Gray discussed his upbringing with Jewish grandparents, and how as a child he rejected “most of what they represented,” forming a profound melancholy that, journalist Stephen Applebaum notes, informs all of Gray’s work.
That melancholy is on full display in AD ASTRA, through sweeping long shots of star-filled voids that could potentially connect us to some form of intelligent life – cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s unique 35mm lens capturing both the allure and despair of space – but more profoundly in the close-ups of Roy’s face, who is hardly given time to remain still, hurdling from one station to the next that’s constantly reaching a new destination that, maybe, will get him to his father.
Pitt, who most recently turned 56, wears the weight of Roy’s constant momentum with earnest, the same way an officer wears a medal of honor. There’s an acceptance of time and all the things that have passed in his gaze, one that the camera captures more than the thousand stars that look back at a life dedicated to uncovering their mystery. The aged lines that cut across Pitt’s face help tell Roy’s story, with both the actor and character having been on a constant acceleration since a young age. Roy is, above all else a tool for the government, stripped of any vulnerability; a military persona poised for the camera with false smiles and penetrating eyes that reveal a pressure cooker of emotion.
Many comparisons will be made to Interstellar – about a father who abandons his children in order to search the far reaches of space for a habitable planet – yet Hoytema’s deliberate choice to move past the comforts of repetition are as luminous as the moon. “To a certain extent, I am always trying to come up with something new in my own eyes, but work methods are like tics. One gravitates towards what feels safe, so I have to constantly keep kicking my own ass and question my motives and reassure that I am not choosing the path of least resistance in my photography choices,” the Swedish cinematographer told Indiewire this past September. Rather than capture the cold, reserved nature of space through blue and grey tones that further exude the isolation of the film’s planets, Hoytema embodies a varied palette by identifying it with Roy’s own weighted psychological state.
Gray introduces us to Roy stuck between space and Earth as he man’s a massive antenna; our planets vast nature of blues and greens ultimately separating him from the extreme abandonment of a father who left 26 years ago. As Roy propels further into space – his mission telling him what he doesn’t believe, that his father is, in fact, alive – the vibrancy of AD ASTRA becomes awash in the greys of the moon – now a spaceport replete with an Applebee’s – and then the rusted browns of Mars before ultimately discovering the heart of darkness.
Much of AD ASTRA has to do with human existence in space, in continually moving forward through a landscape that is physically weightless and emotionally heavy. It’s a world that’s desolate yet rich, remote yet intimate and nothing quite like we’ve ever felt. In being an extension of Roy’s own existentialism, the vast nothingness that reaches far past Neptune is filled with beacons of hope as lustrous as the stars.
Gray takes the themes present in The Lost City of Z – another Heart of Darkness story of pushing the limits of discovery – and subverts them by asking the age-old question of whether or not we’re alone in this world. In trekking through the mind of one man as he hurdles through the boundaries of what we understand about intelligent life, we’re left with the simple notion that perhaps all we have is each other. Perhaps our journey into space isn’t through discovering unknown life but realizing the personal and profound connections on our own. AD ASTRA bridges that revelation, and in doing so becomes a deeply resonate journey through the heart of darkness and into the depths of the human condition, proving that the greatest discovery might be sitting right next to us. AD ASTRA is now available to own on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.