Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 2 hours 2 minutes
Directed by: James Gray
Director James Gray’s AD ASTRA isn’t going to be for everyone, though it clearly wants to be seen as a film with broad mass market appeal. This introspective sci-fi-tinged character study about a son venturing into the deepest recesses of space to rescue his long-lost father is, at its best, a dialed-in exploration of sorrow, rage, colonialism, crass commercialism, obsession and the burdens passed down from father to son. However, its worst qualities threaten to overtake its thematic resonance and metaphorical connotations, turning it into a middling, reductive journey that yields little soul-impacting wallop. Part existential quandary, part spiritual sequel to SPACE COWBOYS, Gray’s space odyssey through a protagonist’s purgatory is aesthetically appealing, yet emotionally stunted.
Cool-headed Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) always wanted to be an astronaut and has sacrificed everything else in his life – mainly his marriage – to be the best. He values the solitude and quiet that the work affords him. His disciplinarian father, Commander Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), set the gold standard as a heroic pioneer in the space program. Dad’s mission to the outermost reaches of the solar system hoped to prove intelligent life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, but it caused him to lose his own life in the pursuit of greatness. Roy’s life in the space program has been spent in the shadow of his father’s legacy – a legacy which has also led to the contentious colonization and repulsive commercialization of space (which is the sharpest, shrewdest commentary of all this film’s insights).
After Roy suffers a precarious tumble back to Earth from high atop an international space antenna, he receives another surprising blow. The government informs him that a dangerous release of anti-matter from near Neptune has led them to believe Clifford is actually still alive, adrift in his ship. They’d like Roy’s help in their quest to bring him back to Earth before he damages all existing life by releasing the rest of the anti-matter. Despite Roy’s reluctance, he accepts the top secret task, high-tailing it into space with his father’s trusted colleague Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland). The eye-opening expedition takes him to unexpected places both externally and internally, testing his boundaries and beliefs.
Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross’ narrative begs audiences to examine the story on a deeper allegorical and metaphorical level. All films do this to a certain degree; however, it’s integral to AD ASTRA’s success. If surveyed solely at face value, it comes across as a sloppy, straight-forward sci-fi actioner. Gray and Gross frequently borrow concepts better explored elsewhere in cinema: The father-son resonance in THE TREE OF LIFE, the examination of madness and obsession in APOCALYPSE NOW and Gray’s own THE LOST CITY OF Z, the familial through-line in INTERSTELLAR, the vastness of space in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and the loneliness and resolve in GRAVITY.
When studying this superficially, the story beats are extremely repetitive. Like any Bond or FAST & FURIOUS film, they’ve got to travel to multiple locations for Movie Reasons. And once they get to those places, there’s always trouble landing their spaceship or traversing the terrain. Though it looks cool and provides some electric engagement, the space buggy chase on the Moon seems like it’s been plucked out of a different film entirely. Roy may have ascended the ranks at his work, but the collateral damage left in his wake (i.e. the dozens of “red shirt” deaths) points directly to him being terrible at his job. When the inevitable finally occurs, the filmmakers falter in delivering a unique sense of gravitas or pathos within the characters’ dynamics. Ruth Negga, playing the director of operations at Mars’ underground research center, is the personification of this type of lost opportunity. The pair’s fascinating, contrasting existence provides a hook that the filmmakers all too quickly dismiss. Plus, it’s dragged down by easily fixable nonsensical stuff dealing with the anti-matter MacGuffin.
Narration is incessant and obtrusive, but isn’t totally useless as it yields subtle insight into Roy’s psyche that even he doesn’t realize. He mentions going through life smiling as a performance, which clues us into a slight depression probably caused by the glaring absence of his father. This is what clues us into the narrative’s deeper, thought-provoking layers. From a certain point of view, Roy might’ve perished when he fell back to Earth and what we’re seeing is his trek through a personal purgatory. The allegorical quest finds our hero battling against the grief that’s shaped him. Gray places Roy, pondering existential thoughts about his drive, literally in the shadow of a moon mural during a scene. Roy watches his wife Eve’s (Liv Tyler) one-way video message as if that’s the way he’s always viewed her speaking to him. And the ravenous, carnivorous space primates he encounters represent obsession eating him alive.
Gray and his below-the-line players immerse us in the gorgeous aesthetics of a near-future world. There’s a staggering, haunting beauty that Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography captures both in the interiors and exteriors of space. Where the story and performances are cooler-toned, his palette shows a rich saturation, best demonstrated in the rooms of the Mars underground base with glowing, vibrant colors. Kevin Thompson’s production design, Karen O’Hara’s set decoration, and all the contributions of the entire art department are top notch. Their softened seventies-style inspirations are indelible. And Max Richter’s score gives the picture a sonically gripping soundscape.
In this modern era, it may be wildly revolutionary and highly commendable to see a white man go on a quest to fix his foibles rather than unapologetically dig into his flaws. However, that isn’t enough to power this rocket to the stars and back.
AD ASTRA opens on September 20.