When we go to space, how much of our baggage will we bring with us? The question hangs over James Gray’s Ad Astra, a mesmerizing sci-fi drama that takes us to a future where humanity has started to colonize the solar system and the stars have begun to lose some of their luster. There are Applebee’s and souvenir stands on the moon, as well as vast no-man’s-lands ruled by rival mining companies and pirates. The Martian colonies look like monumental housing projects on the inside, and we glimpse dogs roaming their windowless concrete corridors. If 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that Ad Astra reveres and parodies in equal measure) gave us the dream of commercial spaceflight with all the style of midcentury Pan Am, this film offers something closer to our own reality: a $125 up-charge for a blanket.
Yet Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is still a believer, albeit one who’s in a crisis of dwindling faith. A born astronaut with nerves of steel and a pulse that never rises above 80 bpm, Roy is a ruminative figure (he narrates much of Ad Astra in voice-over), but also something of a stoic, two-fisted spaceman, at times suggesting that the film’s true kinship isn’t with the philosophizing cosmic journeys or hard sci-fi stories that it outwardly resembles, but with classic adventure pulp. On the moon, he exchanges deadly shots with the aforementioned pirates as their buggies speed toward his convoy in lunar silence. On Mars, he clambers up a rocket engine with seconds on the countdown and then dukes it out with a crew. Somewhere along the way, he encounters killer baboons in zero-g—a turn of events that might seem silly, if it weren’t also terrifying on many levels. Death seems to follow the guy.
Space itself is no picnic. Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera conveys it with a mix of austerity and bewitching eeriness: empty spacecraft interiors, vast planetary rings, murky subterranean Martian lakes, distorted reflections on gold-coated helmet visors. There is palpable awe and mystery here, but as in Claire Denis’ recent High Life, the threat of suicidal despair is never far behind. Mood drugs, we learn, are standard rations for long-haulers of the United States Space Command, or SpaceCom; otherwise, automated psych evaluations are part of an astronaut’s working day. Later, at a Martian outpost, we will see a placard that reads, “Crisis counseling: There is hope, make the call,” mimicking the wording and appearance of the signage that hangs along the Golden Gate Bridge.
We can see the depression creeping through Roy’s outer cool. His life has been lived in the shadow of his father, the legendary H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who left Earth for good when Roy was in his teens and later disappeared, presumed dead, along with the rest of the crew of the Lima Project, a mission to the outer reaches of the solar system that was meant to look for signs of intelligent life around distant stars. Roy himself has grown into a deeply withdrawn man, with nothing to return to on his home planet apart from a failed marriage. The performance is one of the subtlest (and easily the most taciturn) of Pitt’s career, much of it conveyed through his character’s weary eyes.
We have by now come to know these auteur space odysseys—many of them resplendent in their own issues of absent parenting and grief—as an almost annual tradition, with one accomplished director after another offering their take on our place in the infinite void, each promising an even stricter adherence to their own definitions of realism. (In fact, we already got one earlier this year, with High Life.) But while Ad Astra may lack the sweep of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (also lensed by van Hoytema) or the rattling, claustrophobic immersion of Damien Chazelle’s First Man, it makes up for it with its mythic aura, which never feels like a contradiction of Gray’s career-long aversion to pop psychology.
The opening sequence provides equal doses of science gee-whiz and acrophobia, as we watch Roy climb out on the rungs of an antenna mast that rises miles into the upper atmosphere. Then everything begins to crackle, the spindly megastructure crumbles, and Roy finds himself plummeting in free fall. The Earth, it turns out, has been hit by an electromagnetic burst that has wreaked havoc and killed tens of thousands on the ground. (Roy is lucky enough to get away with a stay in the hospital.) But there is of course more: The planet-wide power surge appears to have been a deliberate attack, originating from somewhere in the orbit of Neptune, the last known location of the Lima Project. SpaceCom, in fact, has come to believe that H. Clifford McBride did not perish all those years ago in the pursuit of science, but is in fact very much alive. The mission thus falls on Roy to fly under a cover story to the moon, and from there move on to a remote communications hub where he will attempt to contact his father and draw him out of hiding.
All of this is to some extent familiar territory for Gray, a masterful filmmaker whose movies are defined in part by their flawed, unfulfilled heroes and whose last film, the quixotic and magisterial The Lost City Of Z, portrayed a consuming obsession with the unknown not unlike the one evinced by the elder McBride in his last recorded messages. But that isn’t to say that he hasn’t come a long way from the gritty and intimate New York settings that once defined his moviemaking. For the protagonists of earlier Gray films like Little Odessa, Two Lovers, and We Own The Night, the world ended with the Atlantic surf at Brighton Beach. Now, the distances between his characters are literally astronomical, with a canvas that encompasses the solar system along with our collective dreams, foibles, and existential duties. (Though perhaps one can never really take the New York out of Gray’s sensibility, as there is something of an urbanite’s gripes to Roy’s disapproval of space tourism.)
But one can’t shake the impression that Ad Astra—the biggest and most expensive production of Gray’s nearly 25 years as a director, filled with spectacular effects executed with a sense of scale and speed—is in some ways one of his most minimalist films, and not just because of its militarily stark mise-en-scène. While Roy does cross paths with a number of characters along the way—the most memorable being Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, whose presence qualifies Ad Astra as an unofficial Space Cowboys reunion), an old college buddy of Clifford’s who initially accompanies Roy to the moon, and Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a Martian colonial administrator with a personal connection to the Lima Project—none of them seem to stick around for longer than a handful of scenes.
We spend much of the film in Roy’s perspective, evoked both by the voice-over (one of the movie’s many references to Apocalypse Now, which was also a key influence on The Lost City Of Z) and by a preponderance of point-of-view shots, some framed directly through the scuffed bubble glass of his helmet. The only relationship that really matters is between Roy and Clifford, a character who mostly appears in old video recordings. Yet the film is far from claustrophobic. Rather, it envelops Roy’s personal journey into terra incognita in a larger design, gradually turning human ironies into cosmic ones, drawing parallels between inner and outer space. Even the set pieces, which are simultaneously evocative and efficient, are all crucibles. But where is all this building? The endings of Gray’s best films have ranged from the melancholy to the transcendently tragic, but Ad Astra rings out a note of unlikely hope through the unreassuring emptiness: This is it. This is all there is.