Neil Armstrong, a man better remembered for being first than he is for being funny, once said that his greatest regret was that “my work required an enormous amount of my time, and a lot of travel.” It’s a bittersweet line from a taciturn giant who always tended to find the right words; an admission of deep sadness coated inside the candied shell of a solid quip. But while no one expects an Armstrong quote to make them laugh, some people — especially filmmakers — only seem to hear the pain underneath the astronaut’s punchline.
And they can’t quite wrap their heads around the questions that it raises. What could possibly inspire someone to climb aboard a volatile rocket and blast themselves towards another world in a screaming plume of fire? What kind of siren’s call sings to them from the infinite darkness of space? What are they trying to find out there in the unknown, and/or — most urgent of all — what are they trying to escape by leaving the Earth behind?
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Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” saw Armstrong as a man so haunted by death that he could only make peace with his loss by using each part of it as a step on the ladder he climbed to the moon. James Gray’s similarly introspective (but far more idiosyncratic) “Ad Astra” looks forward to the courageous people who might stand on Armstrong’s shoulders and leap even deeper into the cosmos, and it wonders if they might all be cowards. Here, men only go to the stars in order to hide from themselves.
Another introspective but immaculately crafted adventure epic from the director of “The Lost City of Z,” “Ad Astra” is — whomever he might be (the more baggage you can bring to the table the better, as these characters are mere vessels for the movie’s interplanetary voyage into the heart of darkness). Despite a blockbuster-sized budget and whatever box office aspirations Disney might still have for this leftover piece of Fox’s pre-acquisition production slate, Gray’s largest film is light years removed from the crowd-pleasing likes of “Gravity” and “The Martian.”
This is spare and mythic storytelling; the more expansive its vision gets, the more inward-looking its focus becomes. Even with a linear narrative that never slows down, a chase sequence that feels like “Fury Road” on the moon, and a suspenseful vision of the galaxy that makes room for any number of unexpected surprises (beware the claw marks inside a seemingly abandoned spaceship), “Ad Astra” is still one of the most ruminative, withdrawn, and curiously optimistic space odysseys this side of “Solaris.” It’s also one of the best.
Set in a near future that the opening titles nebulously identify as “a time of hope and conflict,” the story begins with Brad Pitt’s Maj. Roy McBride enjoying some very special “me” time in his happy place high above the Earth. Standing at the edge of the stratosphere and tinkering outside the International Space Antenna — a towering beacon for extra-terrestrial life that stretches all the way from terra firma to the stars — Roy is a ridiculously effective advertisement for the idea of a Space Force.
He’s also a man at peace; a man who enjoys his work because it isolates him from the rest of the world and everyone in it, his frustrated partner Eve most of all (Liv Tyler in a largely symbolic role). Like his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a famous astronaut who disappeared 16 years ago while pioneering the furthest reaches of our solar system, Roy is a paragon of courage who’s absolutely terrified of opening himself up to other people. In his own quiet way, he’s as much a parody of masculinity as Tyler Durden; the perfect hero for a movie that’s less tormented by the vastness of space than it by the smallness of man. Pitt understands the part in his bones, and delivers a performance that weaponizes passivity into a lethal form of self-defense. The actor is a vacuum unto himself, and he wears the kind of empty and contented expression that would make Tyler Durden want to punch him in his perfect face.
And then — in a spectacularly gorgeous sequence that unfolds with the elegant violence of a Pina Bausch ballet — Roy falls to Earth. A massive and mysterious electrical surge causes the antenna to go haywire, and everyone standing on it is sent tumbling down (thankfully, with a parachute). It’s a perfect microcosm for the film to come: The further Roy travels into outer space, the closer he plummets to home. The basis for that perverse dynamic is established as soon as Roy wakes up: According to some top secret NASA types, the surge is being caused by anti-matter or something, the same anti-matter (or something) that Roy’s dad was messing around with when he went off the grid. It seems like he might still be alive, and that the energy he’s radiating towards Earth will soon grow powerful enough to destroy all human life.
Roy’s mission, should he choose to accept it: Covertly bring a nuke to the edge of Neptune and see if he might be able to reason with his old man.
So begins a mesmerizing voyage from the Earth to the Moon… and then to Mars, Neptune, and a couple of other dangerous spots along the way. Roy is the Campbellian hero, his father is Colonel Kurtz by way of the ultimate Disney Dad, and this brilliant journey into the void is absent personal flourishes or added feelings. Constantly subjected to psychological tests that seem engineered to eradicate any traces of real emotion, Roy is cocooned by a Malickian voiceover track, and forced to repeat that he “will not rely on anyone or anything.” That he “will not be vulnerable.” He’s famous for the fact that his heartbeat never goes above 80 beats per minute. The hope for humanity embodied by the absence of humanity, Roy earns NASA’s trust through his vow to “focus on the essential at the exclusion of all else.”
It would seem that Gray adopted the same approach, even if Roy’s idea of what’s “essential” is subject to change. The filmmaker has long been fêted for his classical eloquence, but his imagery has never been so muscular or refined. By explicitly confronting the same coldness that made “The Immigrant” and “The Lost City of Z” feel so closed off — by reframing that remove as a problem to be solved — Gray manages to warp his doggedly literal direction into something pure.
“Ad Astra” is as realistic as space futurism gets, and that credible veneer of verisimilitude grounds even the most wild sequences in a recognizable state of mind. Space becomes a subjective place, silent but for Max Richter’s tremulous score and the vibrations that Roy can feel on his skin; one typically sublime grace note finds Roy reaching his hand out of a rover and filtering moon dust through his fingers. The (undeniably funny) scene when he flies commercial to the moon on Virgin Atlantic could have been ridiculous, but it’s strengthened by the seriousness with which Gray renders the most absurd details.
There’s a Subway sandwich shop in outer space, which seems silly until a vital snippet of Roy’s voiceover lets us know that it’s not. A low-gravity death race erupts as he sneaks to the dark side of the moon, and it’s all the more exciting because Gray shoots it with a leisurely weightless. Even when seen through Roy’s eyes, the action seems like it’s happening to someone else. Every part of his journey erases itself — every stride he takes in his father’s footsteps moves him further away from becoming his own man.
That abstract feeling only grows sharper once Roy’s withdrawn nature starts to get people killed, a pattern that Gray and Ethan Gross’ script beautifully complicates with a pit stop on Mars. Saturated in a nuclear orange glow and slathered with the stale residue of paranoid abandonment, the Tarkovsky-inflected sequence leverages a brief performance by Ruth Negga into an indelible portrait of people at the edge of existence. There’s nothing out there — only less of us.
The final stretches of “Ad Astra,” in which the film manages to wring a measure of hope from that grim idea, marks the first time since “Two Lovers” that Gray has been able to solder unambiguous emotion into the stuff of raw human feeling. There’s a danger in pushing such a mythic story towards a more personal place, and it’s possible the movie would have done well to keep Roy’s father as vague as his ex-partner. But when you’ve got Tommy Lee Jones, you use him. And Gray does just that, evoking an uncompromised performance that can be frustrating in the moment — especially when compounded by a sudden rush of hazy logistical details — but lingers in your memory long after the lights come up.
The ending is abrupt, and Gray acolytes will know not to expect him to go for any full “Contact” emotional cheats, but the climactic beats ring true to the rest of this unforgettable film. A man can spend his entire life running from something that he’s too scared to reckon with, but at a certain point there just isn’t anywhere else to go. When the stars are within our reach, it will only get harder and braver and more necessary for us to recognize when we get there.
“Ad Astra” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. Disney will release it in theaters on September 20.