Gray is definitely not the first director to use the starkness of space to explore issues such as grief and abandonment.
Since no one in space can hear you scream, directors have used the milieu time and time again as a backdrop for characters to explore the idea of solitude. If we learn more about ourselves when traveling, the otherness of a foreign country driving home the routines and attitudes we take for granted when comfortable in our place of origin or adopted home, just how far can introspection go when confronted with the vast endlessly of outer space? From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Interstellar, directors have reached for the stars to explore the last frontier of the human condition.
In his first foray outside terra firma, James Gray turns his camera upwards in Ad Astra. He imagines a future where we have begun to colonize the moon and beyond, the cynical laces of capitalism following humanity like a virus to other objects in our solar system, bringing with it fast food chains and $125 blankets on flights leaving Earth. Yet, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, in his second fine acting turn of the year) still believes in the initial mission of NASA, a wholehearted commitment that has led to the dissolution of his marriage.
Steely on the outside, we learn about Roy’s interior life through the observations of others and voiceover narration. His father was a legendary astronaut who vanished just outside Neptune on a mission in search of extraterrestrial life when Roy was a teenager. Though his father’s absence has punched a hole through Roy’s heart, he has learned to harness that pain and is known for possessing a steady heart rate that never goes over 80 beats per minute, even in times of crisis.
Then a mission arrives that will challenge Roy to his core. After a power surge coming from the outer reaches of the solar system kills thousands of people on Earth, Roy is conscripted into a top-secret mission that may involve the disappearance of his father. Suddenly, in a tightly nuanced performance by Pitt, Roy’s sturdy resolve begins to unravel as the mission takes him from a moon that is now home to pirates to a base on Mars where a dark secret about his past will be revealed.
Filmed by Hoyte van Hoytema, Ad Astra is filled with breathtaking space sequences featuring the stars and the planets. One character even comments about the beauty of the Earth, seen as a blue marble, from the surface of the moon. Gray is definitely not the first director to use the starkness of space to explore issues such as grief and abandonment. In fact, van Hoytema also filmed Christopher Nolan’s superior Interstellar, which explores loss in a similar way. Yet, for some, that prior sentence may be a point of contention.
Interstellar may be overblown and almost histrionic at times with its swells of emotion, but Gray has always been a more restrained director than Nolan. Many of the writers on this very staff routinely kneel at the altar of James Gray, but I’ve often found his films very well-shot, but emotionally clipped. Save for a moment towards its end, Ad Astra is a film that holds its audience at arm’s length—but that is also kind of the point. And even though Ad Astra worships the stillness of 2001, there are actions sequences, both thrilling and ridiculous.
Even though great actors such as Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga appear for what are more like cameos than supporting roles, it makes sense that we spend so much time with Pitt in such an intensely personal story. As his wall of emotional self-defense is further stripped away, we finally see what Roy has been trying to outrun his entire life. Roy’s character arc is clear and easy to see, and for the first time, Gray may have left his protagonist better off than when they started out.