Ad Astra Dir: James Gray (2019) (USA)

Ad Astra   

アド・アストラAdo Asutora

Release Date: September 18th, 2020

Duration: 123 mins.

Director: James Gray

Writer: James Gray, Ethan Gross (Screenplay),

Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler, Kimmy Shields, John Finn, LisaGay Hamilton, Bobby Nish, Sean Blakemore, Kimberly Elise,

Website IMDB

Following on from his sure-footed performance as a cocksure stunt-double in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, Brad Pitt takes the lead in another of 2019’s biggest films but dials down the flashiness to portray an ace astronaut who must confront a hostile environment and emotional states as he goes to the far edge of the Solar System in search of his father to stop a civilisation-ending disaster.

Pitt gives an understated performance as Major Roy McBride, a skilled but buttoned-up military man famous for having a pulse that never goes above 80 bpm.

His character is cool and controlled as shown through taciturn speech, precise and confident movement. This is put into spectacular effect in the stellar opening sequence as he clambers around a space elevator and then plunges to Earth with nary a raised voice or flailing arm after a cosmic surge shorts out electrical systems and causes explosions up and down the super structure. It is a sequence of stomach-churning vertiginous and virtuoso visual effect that takes place at a great height as Roy is thrown into the stratosphere amidst clouds of explosions and debris showers that consume the other, lesser, astronauts who are obliterated.

Danger is everywhere and yet Roy never panics. Roy’s got this. He’s an elite spaceman.

Roy’s cool reactions come from the fact that he is self-disciplined and inspired. After all, he is the son of famed astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a grizzled space pioneer who went missing in the final frontier when his “Lima Project” mission to search for intelligent life reached Neptune and went M.I.A. but it isn’t easy being good and he faces a reckoning over the personal cost he has endured when he is recruited by U.S. Space Command to help stop the power surges which Clifford may be responsible for causing. In order to save mankind, Roy will have to track down his father but this also means confronting the emotional inheritance of someone who has defined his life and wounded him in so many way.

It seems that in the near future where space flight has become routine and humanity has colonised the Moon and Mars, people still labour with the same man-made problems that we face today: resource wars and rapacious corporatism,  manipulative governments and masculinity.

Anyone hoping for an action movie with moon-buggy chases and pew-pew lasers best check their expectations at the door as the film eschews loud and flashy explosions for some soul-searching in a Heart of Darkness tale. It does come with occasional scenes of peril and paranoia but these serve to up the pressure on Roy and get him closer to breaking point as the film’s languid pace and quiet disposition allows the audience to contemplate its themes around the strictures of masculinity and the sins of the father affecting the son.

It all plays out in Roy’s mission as he enters the inhospitable realm of space, which never feels as threatening as seen in recent space films Gravity and The Martian. It does paint a world that feels lived in and full of exploitation that we would recognise from our own reality as Roy goes from a Disney-fied moon base and an outlaw lunar landscape, gets caught up in political machinations on Mars and is lied to at every turn by his government all while he faces situations ever more fraught with danger but as spectacular as individual sequences are, there’s no real build up of tension to the narrative, rather a breaking down of character because we see that the closer Roy gets to his father, the more his mental state, which is already shaky at the start, comes apart at the seams in ways that his self-discipline cannot help.

The biggest battle Roy faces in space comes from mental health which is plagued by emotional damage which has its roots in Clifford. Unable to talk to anyone for fear of failure and being seen as weak, he deals with what is eating away at him through adherence to his work ethic, automated psychological evaluations (which sound like a cheap way of doing things as necessitated by insurance) and “comfort rooms” that display projections of nature to ease his emotional state.

In space no-one can hear you cry and the Roy keeps his emotions in check but we feel the gravity of them through the psych-evals and in the detached philosophical narration/self-critical analyses delivered by Brad in his most sombre voice. Roy peels back the scabs over his emotional wounds and reveals that living life in the shadow of his father has been a burden and created a well of emotional issues from feelings of rejection and anger to fear of failure – there are terse flashbacks and narration that suggest Clifford was abusive as well as uncaring towards his family – and that the only way Roy can cope is to create an emotional black hole to swallow everything up, something he has created through self-discipline and compartmentalisation.

This is what masculinity demands rather sharing emotions. Stoicism. Roy feels as if he has nobody to talk to and so wears the false mask of confidence which has led to space-faring superiority for him but created distance from those most important to him including his wife Eve (Liv Tyler playing the thankless role of the girl back home) which has left him isolated and unable to adequately deal with those emotions lest he appear weak. When he confronts the dragon that is his father, an Ahab-esque man who represents the most callous masculinity, he understands the futility and emptiness in living a similar life and, breaks out of his prison of stoicism and seeks to share himself with others. With this understanding, he can detach himself from his past and share his troubles.

This is more character study than action movie. A deconstruction of masculinity. There are moments of peril and tension but these are few as the film settles back into a quiet atmosphere of contemplation and thoughtfulness. This point is made through Max Richter’s disconsolate score which feels disconnected from the action and more intent on highlighting the isolating quality of space and Roy’s lonely emotional battle. The set design is akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey which feels like a realistic depiction of how we will colonise space. There is also some great use of colours to accentuate emotions: the blues of Neptune radiate coldness and isolation, the red of Mars danger and anger, while Earth has more comforting oranges and browns. The direction is tactful and allows the exploration of character through great nuanced acting from the cast, especially Brad who carries the film.

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