Space as a mood
James Gray is a singular American filmmaker in that his movies are about men’s interior lives, whereas most American movies are about men and their toys. Gray has gone from chamber pieces in his old neighborhood of Brighton Beach (Little Odessa), to the Amazonian jungle (The Lost Story of Z), and now all the way to Neptune to tell the stories of men with feelings.
Even though Ad Astra takes place in future Earth, the Moon, deep space, Mars and Neptune, it really takes place in the weary heart of Roy McBride (a melancholy Brad Pitt). We are in the post Star Wars age of sci-fi movies where astronauts bring their prosaic problems with them to space (in Gravity and Interstellar astronauts fret about the whiny kids they left on Earth). Few of these movies stop to consider what kind of state of mind one experiences by being in space. In The Martian, Matt Damon is too busy planting potatoes to realize he is all alone in Mars. This being a James Gray movie, deep space serves as a metaphor for the space inside us. The universe feels as forlorn, empty and inscrutable as a battered human heart. At least Gray understands that space cannot only motivate pedestrian feelings.
In Ad Astra, the family problem actually takes place in space. The premise can give a cynical soul pause: McBride has been tasked as the only person on Earth who can successfully search for his father (the great Tommy Lee Jones), a fabled astronaut that was supposedly lost to space, but it’s suspected he’s still out there causing mayhem. Hence, his son is the only man who can save the universe. Plots of movies that revolve around men and their father issues make me want to tear my hair out, let alone solo heroes who save the cosmos all by themselves, but if anyone can turn this exhausting American bullshit into something interesting, it’s James Gray.
His movies are a mood.
The father issues: A great man leaves his family for a heroic quest (the search for intelligent life in the universe), leaving his son feeling abandoned, undeserving, and unloved. In fact, the old man may be responsible for some electric phenomena that are causing trouble on Earth, including a dramatic accident that befalls his son. Such is the power of fathers over sons that it can send their offspring plummeting to Earth from across the galaxies, which is how the movie starts, with Roy’s vertiginous fall. Don’t expect much action after that, although there are jolts.
Because of his past, McBride Jr. is detached from his feelings. He has a consistently low heart rate that never rises. Beyond even-keeled, he’s emotionally catatonic. Still, he follows in his father’s footsteps and becomes a respected astronaut. He lives under the myth of the great man, as many children of celebrated parents do. He realizes that his professional devotion inflicts on his loved ones the same wounds his father inflicted on him. He needs to go all the way into space; that is, deep inside his soul, to learn the truth about his dad and about himself.
I am much more interested in Gray’s lack of faith in humanity, which I enthusiastically share. His view of our potential colonization of space is a bummer. Man has gone to the moon to open DHL branches and even a Hudson News (look closely, it’s there)! A blanket and a pillow cost $125 on the flight to Mars. So I imagine a pack of gum at Hudson News will set you back about $20. To add insult to injury, it turns out that we bring violence, greed and ugliness to space with us.
Through Roy’s introspective journey we get a profound sense of hubris. In the middle of his mission, forced to stop to help a spaceship in distress, he encounters an animal lab run amok, another observation into the far-reaching arrogance of the human race, always trying to play God. Luckily, we also encounter Natasha Lyonne, who can make outer space feel as warm and endearingly off-kilter as any corner of New York City. It’s a little cameo but it cozies the movie for light-years. McBride has no sense of humor but James Gray does.
As in all movies about father fixations, women are afterthoughts. In Gray’s movies women are quasi-mythical characters. They exert a strong pull on men but they tend to be shrouded in mystery. Ruth Negga appears too briefly to commiserate with Pitt: her character lost her parents in space too. Liv Tyler, who appears as his wife, is almost literally a blur, but this is by design. This is Roy’s exact problem — he prefers space to Liv Tyler. He must continue on his journey alone, and James and his co-writer Ethan Gross, conveniently dispatch everyone around him, sadly including Donald Sutherland, so that Roy can face his demons and his dad all by himself. In the hands of anyone else this would be cringeworthy but Gray sustains it through sheer introspection. There are revelations about Roy’s father that are unsettling, to say the least. He is Darth Vader-ish. Tommy Lee Jones is amazing in the little time he has onscreen. Gray touches on the theme of our self-aggrandizing, dangerous national mythologies about heroes, who can never possibly be as wholesome as we wish them to be. For a change, it is the father, not the son, who disappoints.
In a stunning sequence, father and son are tethered to each other in space with a rope — like an umbilical cord between men. The space as metaphor for Roy’s psyche is literal, but it works.
Brad Pitt looks frazzled and deeply pained. He delivers a quiet, solid performance, minimal almost to the point of blankness. But it’s in the almost where he commands attention. It is a testament to his charisma that he lights up the screen the two times he smiles. Gray shoots him mostly up close, and he can take it. He is not a brilliant actor but as he demonstrated in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, he is becoming much more interesting. He is aging extremely well.
The cinematography by Hoyte Von Hoytema is beautiful, as is the music by Hans Richter. I wish the movie were a tad less slow. Some of the slowness seems too deliberate for a filmmaker with the gifts of James Gray. Still, it’s worth surrendering to the heavy density of the mood.