By Ray Pride
What if there was intelligent life at the farthest reaches of the studio system?
Fully a fable, a chamber piece within outer space, “Ad Astra” is flint and lyric: the search for self, the search for God, the transformation of thought into light playing off an iconic face in close-up against the bold but airless light of a greater universe. James Gray’s marvel of a paranoid thriller, antagonistically serene, is an uncommon attainment of visual and sonic beauty, ready and ripe to be madly misunderstood. In this near future, the moon is colonized and is a waystation to travel to Mars and, clandestinely, beyond. Brad Pitt is mid-career astronaut Roy McBride, forever in the penumbra of his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the most accomplished and revered voyager of them all, who, the space agency attests, vanished nearly three decades earlier as part of the Lima Project, a top-secret experiment that nestled in the rings of Neptune. (Their goal had been to sense intelligent life beyond the edge of human attainment.) Roy is self-contained: taciturn, calm, hardly flurried by the greatest of physical and psychological challenges. He’s summoned after a global “Surge”: power strikes, cosmic rays blast from the heavens and kill tens of thousands. Could his decades-absent father be alive, a terrorist hurling the fire of antimatter, reveling in unsound methods?
In a brisk, telling New Yorker profile of writer-director-producer Gray at work, Nathan Heller quotes Pitt, “The idea of portraying a man who couldn’t connect, who had to go to the outer reaches of space to unlock himself, spoke to me. I think it will speak to anyone who has tried to protect themselves in life and ended up walled off.”
Dialogue is gnomic, blunt: “Most of us spend our lives in hiding”; “He went farther than anybody”; “We remind you that the Moon is borderless…”; “First time in a war zone?” “Three years over the Arctic.” Startling, even: “Apes ate ‘em.”
Roy’s mental state is measured regularly by an analytic HAL, through sedate spoken reports: “I slept well, eight-point-two hours, no bad dreams. Submit.” Roy’s thoughts drift. His mind moors to the mundane, to believing himself whole, not walled-off. The intermittent rumination is revelation to no one, not even Roy himself. Streams of affirmation could shear readily into solipsism, but his skittering thoughts move like a water strider atop the disarming calm of a pond’s skin (or those of the common God-struck Terrence Malick man).
The younger McBride’s mind, like Melville’s, is transfixed by an Ahab who happens also to be a Great White Dad. Yet the sustained beauty of “Ad Astra” casts that archetype aside. The father-son conflict is so elemental that it recedes into architecture and we are offered an allegory of discovery of self, rather than one of the rebuke of forebear.
Ad Astra: James Gray and his crew built a movie about men who avoid vulnerability and responsibility by becoming professional adventurers and workaholics. Anti-colonialist, pro-vulnerability. The personal becomes, quite literally, the universal.
— Aleš Kot (@ales_kot) September 29, 2019
The mythic is distilled. Pitt, the performer, the minimalist, the magician, is of course, also Icarus, handsome boy in middle age, thoughts held fast beneath his planed cheeks when silent, eyes wide, a capital camera subject. Myth meshes, revealing riches: the shadow of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”; a taste of “The Tempest”; a lashing of Homer’s odyssey; the sensual darkness of Alan J. Pakula and his eye, Gordon Willis. Gray shows a Tarkovskian bent in selecting settings: entrances, vestibules, corridors, naves, buildings within buildings. There’s a frisson of Malick as an astronaut extends his hand from a lunar buggy and the fingers of his gloves trail moon dust. And, of course, Kubrick’s “2001,” aping its lesson: take the mystical, make the world practical and tactile, proceed deliberately.
On a pristine 70mm print, “2001” reads as a chronicle of transportation, a ride on a bus, a plane, the train, a jet, an interplanetary vessel: the drudgery of transit to get to a place in order to get to another place. The journey is a succession of conveyances, public and private. That, too, is “Ad Astra.” To the stars, by way of rocket after rocket, through effort to the stars, with the addition of space pirates from the George Miller school on the lunar surface.
But “Ad Astra” is “Ad Astra.” Strangeness blooms, yet exaltation is withheld. Man, tiny: The instant the lunar buggy rackets, gunfire in pursuit, to the dark side of the moon, the sky above reveals a perfect etch of the Milky Way. The most vivid of retinal imprints dissipates within frames, as if it had never manifested.
Quiet yet emphatic instants abound: a journey on earth along a mountainside road reveals on the horizon a pair of stories-high spires, rising from a cathedral of Western wilderness, rockets awaiting commercial transit to the surface of the moon. The moon is there, too, new, pale in daylight, between the spacecraft. A scene of sudden horrific violence offers a blur of a man and a second face: two faces, gibbous, as in a Bacon posture of painted frozen scream. Then from Mars to Neptune, seventy-nine days, four hours, eight minutes, the autopilot submits. Hallucination and allusions to the work of a breadth of experimental filmmakers follows.
[Spoilers.] And at final destination? A sparking space station that includes a Fritz Lang-like glass floor composed of triangular panes, revealing the movie’s Mabuse, that monster, seen from beneath, the willful, absent father who has become as God to himself, behind milky cataracts, “I have infinite work to do.”
Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot on 35mm film where possible, with special effects created with actors on a soundstage rather than daubed into a weightless digital canvas. The effect is stately and taut, a “realism” or authenticity discarded by filmmakers not as steeped in classicism as Gray. “All the classical format really means, to me, is: take your own ego out of the equation,” he told the New Yorker. “It’s all about you, but the style is not about you. Something is lost in that mediation, but that’s the battle that you face.”
The ending, plausibly a compromise, is bliss: refined to a breath, an occasion of light and décor: a glance received, a glance taken, and final words that make all the voiceover’s swimming, self-doubting stream-of-semi-sentience resonate in a simple instant of necessary engagement, human engagement.
It was a pleasure to weep at journey’s end: “I will live… and love. Submit.”
“Ad Astra” opens Friday, September 20. See big. See loud.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.