Considering both remain largely an enigma, it is not surprising that space, in its vastness, in its incomprehensibleness, has long been a canvas upon which filmmakers have explored humanity, in its intimacy, vastness and incomprehensibleness. James Gray’s Ad Astra radiates that legacy. It is not particularly original when it comes to narrative, themes and aesthetic but exudes ferocious freshness in its assemblage of old ideas.
Ad Astra is concurrently simple and ambitious in its purpose. It is the sort of film that might have been set anywhere and just happens to be set in space. In fact, it has already been set somewhere, in Vietnam, by Francis Ford Coppola. Out of all its influences, Ad Astra arguably owes the most to Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as it was an inspired idea on Coppola’s part to relocate Joseph Conrad’s famous novella from the African jungle to the Vietnam War, outer space – with all the anxiety that it provokes – is an appropriately inspired re-relocation.
If you have seen Apocalypse Now or read “Heart of Darkness” then the set up to Gray’s film will seem very familiar. There is no steamboat captain or army Captain heading up river. Instead, astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is charged with journeying to the outer edges of the Solar System to relocate his missing father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), whose presence throughout various documents and recordings evokes memories or Colonel Kurtz’ haunting voice on Willard’s tapes.
Roy is chosen because he has the uncanny knack for remaining calm in dangerous situations. A visually imposing opening sequence sees him hurtling toward Earth from the “International Space Antenna”, after a shockwave starts blowing the structure to pieces. He’s also chosen because of his connection to his father, a connection that Space Comm – an authoritative and militarised translation of NASA – hopes to exploit in order to reconnect with the older McBride.
Ad Astra is a collage. It is perhaps appropriate that it arrives in cinemas at the end of a decade that enjoyed the releases of films such as Interstellar, The Martian, Gravity and First Man, though Gray’s influences lie more primarily within classic science fiction such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Arguably Ad Astra‘s greatest achievement is how comprehensively and virtuosically Gray weaves these influences into a coherent whole that almost paradoxically maintains its own character.
The film straddles a line between hyper realistic, a result of its aesthetic, and sensationalist science fiction, which is more to do with the pulpy plot. It’s an engaging association. But Gray, with co-screenwriter Ethan Gross, has underwritten his film in significant ways, using Roy’s detached stoicism as shorthand for certain thematic interests and trusting too much in a universal audience response when it comes to father/son relationships.
We understand Roy’s relationship with his father as an astronaut because we are witness to him living in that shadow throughout the film. We don’t understand Roy’s relationship with his father as a son because it is never addressed beyond vague banalities and characteristics that were are only told are shared between the two.
Gray hopes that we fill in the blanks of his creative ambitions with our own experience with patriarchy and our personal attitude toward the immenseness of space. His own lack of consideration in regard to how these connect is conspicuous. In cinema, being lost in space has often equated to characters getting lost in themselves but there is simply not enough character, in either McBride, for the two men to get lost in.
The opening chapters of Ad Astra are its best, because we are yet unaware that the central motif around which the film revolves will not be as exceptionally realised as Gray’s impeccable world building suggests it might be. Ad Astra is largely phenomenal and occasionally meagre.