Ad Astra: Space Melodrama

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a man with a chronically low heart rate. He’s armed with an actor who is a virtuoso at exchanging emotions at a low pulse. In The Tree of Life, Pitt took a generation of fathers afraid to show emotion and turned it into a parable of self-loathing. What made him perfect to play that everyman is something common to all of them, and difficult to show on film: an everyman at some point wanted to be someone else. Ad Astra catches him in that same cycle, though his part is aged backward: now he’s looking for the father, and looking through the parts of himself that he’s afraid to recognize. It has the ambition, like James Gray’s previous film, The Lost City of Z, to show men caught up in glory, to show their cycle of self-defeat, and to show human history through the lens of their efforts to be someone else. The irony is that humility is the first thing I would have prescribed to the screenwriting sessions of Ad Astra.

Nothing that Roy explains through inner monologues is particularly interesting, though it was written with a high sense of importance. Pitt’s everyman delivery becomes shoddy through the obviousness of the text: he becomes an anyman instead. The premise seems to be that for a character's lone emotional journey, inner thoughts should be as easy to write as exposition. But reduced to exposition, the character hollows out. Consider a situation where he accidentally murders a few innocent people. In a normal situation, Pitt’s watery eyes and naturally withdrawing gaze would suffice as guilt; we could read the humanity into the character. But since the film includes all pertinent information in audible monologues, we miss this physical description of his moment as we’re relying on his talk. By standing in for all his feelings, these little speeches (they’re like a tribute to the notorious narration at the end of the theatrical cut of Blade Runner) always sell him out as not feeling too much. I never really got over the fact that he killed those people, precisely because he seemed to do it without much mental trouble.

Had his mental sterilization been the point, Ad Astra might have recovered some thematic ground. The film shows that the future government (here represented by “Space Command”) values a lack of emotion in its recruits. The psychological evaluations that Roy completes on computers recall the workforce application of the Voight-Kampff test in Blade Runner 2049, serving better than the inner narration to give us a perspective on Roy since it allows us to assess him and detect lies. It's how the audience counts his pulse. But these self-administered evaluations never escalate; they’re just one of the movie’s many dangling themes. Emotionlessness eventually turns out to be less than a theme and more a reluctant style.

Ad Astra was gesturing at a brilliant move. Roy arrives on Mars and the movie instantly becomes beautiful (while outer space is filmed with reverence, it infrequently dips into that motion blur effect that makes film footage look like it has the framerate of a soap opera; it doesn’t happen often, but the astral charm evaporates instantly when it does). Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema turns Mars into a mind-space that favors reds and yellows and slats of light. The industrial geometry, the dust fields, the bunkers, seem like a wonderful place for Roy to lose his head (it recalls his work on Interstellar: being the best part of the movies he works on is becoming Hoytema’s watermark). Roy shows an emotional reaction to his mission and gets dropped from the project (the film’s one application of that theme). There are little pleasure dens and office spaces; Ruth Negga appears, criminally briefly, and contains more depth of feeling in dutiful tight lips and hair cropped at the line than Pitt in this movie, for all the mist in his eyes. These obedient people, working through life in constant longing of a planet they’ve never seen, are the right denizens for a male madness story, a parable of failed glory and control and an evolution of conscience out of an emotionless future. But it doesn’t happen.

Roy leaves it for a mission to find his dad, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, adopting the name of a sheriff in a Lorraine Heath novel). There’s some whispered mention of a moral problem, like maybe the senior McBride has some evil intentions brought on by madness, but the reasons for going there are based more on plot. Roy needs to stop the antimatter emissions on Neptune from wiping out all living matter in the galaxy. By the end, he’s “riding shockwaves” like an MCU hero, flying bodily through asteroid fields with a door held in front of him as a shield. Does this sound “Homeric?" It’s a word I’ve read more than once in reference to this film.

Gray’s idea of realism (it was this way in The Lost City of Z too) gives off an impression of reality without assessing enough details to make it a burden to the film's sense of fun. Space is not overly clean in Ad Astra, but it's also not a universally dangerous place. We see the cramped conditions and bad food, but Roy also pushes off with no tether into a belt of asteroids, propelled from one ship in orbit to another somewhere else in orbit. The extent of that fantasy crimps the tone of the movie; the viewer loses their sense of place with him. Compare this to the tiny accident in Europa Report that bumps an astronaut off a step and sends him careening into the black with no hope of recovery. That film worked harder for the tone that Ad Astra states it has already achieved in every somber monologue and slow-moving special effect. Why chew over the launch protocols and command structure, the slow excesses of moving gravity fields and travel procedures, if the plot will eventually remind the audience of when Princess Leia flew through space like Mary Poppins in Star Wars: The Last Jedi? The mixture in Ad Astra, which seems to favor realism as a style but drops it when it would be inconvenient to the plot, is a distracting half-measure.

Despite its noncommital physical reality, which seems designed explicitly for a narrative purpose, the film's plot does not climax; it fizzles. Comparing Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now, as some journalists have, because of Roy’s spiritual journey to find a lost crazy person, is generous in the same way that comparing a Big Mac to a filet mignon would be, just because they’re made of the same animal. The trick is in knowing which parts of the animal are important, preparing and seasoning them perfectly, and calling it a Big Mac if it is one and a filet if it is one. Roy’s climax of discovery is an aside that leads abruptly into a scene that belongs in a blockbuster, where he flies through space like a Dragon Ball Z character, yet with no pretensions of coolness: it’s presented blatantly, as though that’s just what happens when you’re in a space movie, as though it could happen. There’s no poetry in it; just a flush of logic and a monologue to sort it out. The burger is claiming to be steak. The relationship he has with his dad, in total on the screen in Ad Astra, would rank nowhere in the great parental bonds of the movies, as nothing but a lot of windup and half a conversation. Turner has a stronger connection to Hooch.

Do the vibrant visuals and Max Richter’s stunning post-classical score offset the deadening gaps in emotional clarity? Light skimming across a satellite isn’t a source of feeling, but it could amplify the emotions already there. Ad Astra hopes to get by as just the sparkle of light, as though the rest can be nonchalantly spoken into existence and accepted as great drama at face value. It spends half a scene with the father; Pitt monologues about the importance of love, and that’s supposed to move us to tears. The film offsets any feeling at all with momentum – it’s paced so wackily that when Roy has to shoot a space baboon in the face, it’s almost like a culmination of every slap-dash way his journey is thrown together. It’s like a random pinch in the arm to make sure you’re still awake. I’m sure someone thinks a baboon is deeply rooted in the film’s patriarchal symbology as part of its repudiation of a masculine rage complex. But sometimes, a baboon is just a baboon.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, October 24, 2019

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©20th Century Fox/Regency Enterprises

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