Ad Astra October 17, 2019
Tommy Lee Jones
2 Hrs., 3 Mins.
d Astra (2019), a space drama, is humongous. It barrels across the outer limits, takes smoke breaks on the moon and other planets, and explores the inners of a handful of miles-long fleets. Like many a space movie, it grapples with the futility of existence. And, because it’s also set in the near future, the movie also satirizes, albeit mutedly, humanity’s need to explore and conquer, and how commerce
attaches itself to the practices. (The moon has been colonized in Ad Astra, and in its timeline you can dine at Applebee’s and Subway there; the protagonist can fly to the cratered sphere in the first place on Virgin Atlantic, on which you can purchase a pillow-and-blanket pack for just $125.)
But the bigness is deceptive. At its crux, Ad Astra is an intimate and traditionalist father-son story. It isn’t of the heartwarming kind, though. It orbits around an astronaut’s tireless quest to seek the approval of his once-thought-dead dad (also an astronaut), which requires him to go looking for the old man on a space base billions of miles from Earth. The affliction goes further than the two men. Problems at Dad’s current base seem to be causing deadly power surges on Earth.
The astronaut doing the searching in Ad Astra is named Roy McBride (Brad Pitt). McBride is like one of the heroes Clint Eastwood or Franco Nero used to play in Westerns. He possesses preternatural good looks — complete with a piercing set of lapis-blue eyes — and shows off an old-fashioned brand of masculinity. McBride is also gravely tight-lipped. He’s so closed off that his wife (Liv Tyler) has left him, not because of ill will necessarily but because of the loneliness that overwhelms her even when he's there. McBride doesn’t appear to have any loved ones in his life. If he does, we’d guess they probably talk about him the same way his former spouse did behind his back. Even when you’re sitting next to him, he might as well not be there.
We’ll learn that the guardedness, in a lot of ways, is embedded in McBride’s dysfunctional relationship with his dad, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). Growing up, McBride, Sr. was rarely around — both physically and emotionally. About 26 years ago, Clifford and a crew left Earth to find intelligent life in the outer limits. Ten years into the mission, the cadre vanished somewhere around Neptune. It’s been assumed that Clifford and his team perished. But early in the movie, the U.S. Space Command — or SpaceCom — brings McBride into its chambers and tells him that that isn’t so. Because that isn’t so, and because Clifford’s ship seems to be responsible for the electrical surges, McBride must be the one to attempt to contact him. Clifford’s just chosen to stop communicating with SpaceCom. The movie, then, becomes equal parts about finding a potential endpoint to McBride’s father issues and world-saving in the classic superhero astronaut sense.
Ad Astra encompasses a wide-ranging journey by necessity. It even includes some neat thriller set pieces. We’ve got a car chase on the moon, dressed to the nines in cutesy robotic-looking guns, nearly floating rovers, and green highway-like road signs on the astronomical body’s new traveling paths. There’s also a freaky sequence where McBride and one of the teams he temporarily joins hop aboard to paw through a seemingly empty ship in peril only to discover that its crew has been uniformly mauled by a baboon, who’s presumably there for scientific purposes. (McBride remains impressively calm as the scowling monkey attempts to eat his face.)
Ad Astra sounds like an epic — perhaps even a characteristic popcorn movie — when you describe its features. But when you watch it it feels compact, personal — like a tortured internal monologue writ large. (Such a feeling can also be blamed on the extensive voiceover work; Pitt narrates the film as if he were a private eye in a detective movie.) When the dialogue McBride has been seeking comes — between himself and his very-much-alive father, who’s played by Jones with an unsettling glassiness — the emotional anticlimax is still sort of climactic. The closure McBride had possibly fantasized about is kicked in the chest. We knew and he knew that it would end up that way, but who wouldn’t be a little optimistic after hurtling through space for so many days wanting to talk to their estranged parent? Still, it’s a revivifying blow. McBride does get the answers he’s implicitly long been looking for, and the Earth is, for now, a lot safer than it once was. (I wondered: is climate change as big a threat in the timeline of Ad Astra as it is in our own?)
Each moment of Ad Astra can be felt. I’d temporarily forgotten how long two hours could be until I started watching it. But as the friend I went to a screening with remarked, it's the type of slow burn you like. James Gray, who co-wrote and directed the movie, convincingly creates an alternate universe while also crafting a persuasive interior life for McBride. (The narration, though, is a step too far. We’re already assuming what McBride is thinking in most moments, so the nondiegetic observations feel like coddling.) And Pitt, who’s having a great year professionally, gives one of his best, most gradated performances. Though I tend to enjoy him at his loopiest — 12 Monkeys (1995), Fight Club (1999), Burn After Reading (2008) — rumbling-inside heroes of the Steve McQueen mold is a familiar character prototype that suits him just as well. The movie has some understated parallels to some of the tabloid-baiting aspects of Pitt's personal life, too. Like this year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which also understatedly played with its star's public persona, the flashes of concurrency enrich the drama. This'll be a textbook life imitating art thing to a lot of viewers’ eyes, even if the actor whose life we think is imitating the art wouldn’t be so sure themselves. One departs the theater a bit disoriented after Ad Astra, but after we've sat with it a while, it starts to reveal itself. A-