Director James Gray’s Ad Astra, apart from being beautiful to look at (down in front, Brad Pitt fans!), also sets out to be that rare, beautiful thing: a sci-fi movie of ideas. It is interested in outer space as much as the universe inside the metaphorical man in the moon. If only it trusted those ideas to speak to its audience loudly enough, because then it might not have felt the need to spell them all out in explicit, clunky voiceover.
If you were only to watch the trailer, you might get the idea that Ad Astra is a boys-own adventure IN SPACE!, and indeed, it is a surprisingly action-packed film (but then, Annihilation had its ravenous mutant alligators too). It already starts with a fall from the kind of height that would’ve spread poor Humpty Dumpty across all seven continents and possibly a satellite or two, as an orbital antenna is destroyed by a mysterious energy surge from deep space – yet Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) of US Space Command not only survives the plunge, his pulse barely rises as he falls to his near-death.
See, Roy is the kind of manly man that recalls Tony Soprano’s paean to Gary Cooper: “The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.”(Is it coincidence that the protagonist shares the name of an iconic movie cowboy?) Much like another American astronaut of recent cinema history, Major McBride is the kind of man you want on your dangerous mission – but you may not enjoy sharing his bed or his life: we see his wife (played by Liv Tyler, no stranger to the company of heroic spacefarers) walk out on him, and hints gathered from Roy’s voiceovers and his behaviour in general suggest that he is cold and emotionally closed off, if not indeed stunted. Perhaps this is the price to be paid for being able to get through various encounters with space death, from pirate attacks on the surface of the Moon to fending off hyper-aggressive baboons on research space stations? After all, Roy is sent by SpaceCom to investigate the surges threatening mankind and, if possible, to put an end to them, so perhaps he needs to a bit of a Gary Cooper.
Except no, Ad Astra makes it very clear that while Roy’s behaviour may be what is desired by his employers (we repeatedly see him undergoing, and passing, automated psychological evaluations), it is a form of escape, from his emotions and more mundane responsibilities towards others – and he is not the first McBride who ran away from his feelings all the way to outer space. His father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), led the Lima Project, whose mission was to travel to the outer limits of the solar system and search for extraterrestrial life – a mission that came to an end under mysterious circumstances after SpaceCom lost contact with McBride Sr and his crew after they’d reached Neptune. Roy barely knows his father as a human being, but he knows the heroic story of the man who went to look for life – while also making an early exit from the lives of his wife and son. It is fair to say that the Roy we see has been following in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one.
Of course McBride Sr doesn’t stay gone for very long. Of course the mysterious energy surges from the direction of Neptune aren’t entirely unrelated to what has happened to Roy’s father and to Lima Project. And of course the McBrides’ failures as spouses and their inability to deal with their feelings in any way other than repression are central to Ad Astra‘s themes. For all of the space action that Pitt stoically endures and survives, Ad Astra is about them as little as Annihilation was about mutant gators and spooky bears gobbling up intrepid explorers. Less so, arguably, because while Annihilation was interested in its more speculative elements, in Ad Astra the sci-fi is setting and only very rarely anything approaching theme.
Which in itself doesn’t have to be a problem: a lot of cerebral sci-fi isn’t cerebral about rocket parts and plasma clouds. More often than not, outer space is inner space and the human psyche is the final frontier. Ad Astra‘s problem isn’t that its space action acts as the spoonful of space sugar to make the human nitty-gritty taste sweet – the problem is the heavy-handedness of the story it tells of the dysfunctionality of traditional maleness and the ambivalence of the strong, silent type. Ad Astra‘s psychology is obvious, it is lacking in subtlety and nuance to the point of being facile. His father, Clifford McBride has had no small part in, wait for it, almost destroying the world because he is the kind of old-school man who is self-centred and domineering and who mistakes murderous stubbornness for steadfastness, and the son, Roy McBride, must travel to the edge of the solar system to learn that emotions are not a weakness but indeed essential to being a fully formed human being.
Except, for all of its clunky obviousness it doesn’t even hold up particularly well. Ad Astra‘s story is at cross purposes with its themes, because a Roy who isn’t a repressed husk of a man most likely wouldn’t get to where he needs to go in order to learn to be a real boy and save the world in the process. Roy goes on his expensive, dangerous, rocket-powered therapy trip because he is Gary Cooper, because he doesn’t know how to be any different than his father. He only runs away to his rescue mission in outer space because he is following in his father’s footsteps. If Major McBride hadn’t been who he was to begin with, he wouldn’t have been in a position for that old twofer: to change into a better man and to stop the thing that is threatening the world. It’s difficult not to see the story as self-undermining.
It’s a shame that Ad Astra is the kind of film that works the less the closer you look at it, because there is definitely space (no pun intended) for sci-fi focused on those ideas and those themes. It is also a shame because the craftsmanship that went into Ad Astra is engaging and at times even stunning. The film’s visuals are often beautiful, ranging from the epic to the feverish, and the performances are consistently strong, from Pitt as much as from a supporting cast that includes, among others, Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland. It’s mostly the script that lets Ad Astra down; already a judicious pruning of its voice-overs (Malickian in tone, motivational poster in content) would have helped, letting the audience fill in some of the blanks themselves rather than serving them pat conclusions on a platter. In the case of Ad Astra, less would definitely have been more. Ironically, perhaps the film itself is too much in touch with its feelings and in the process fails to get out of its own way.