Everyone knows who Neil “One Small Step for a Man” Armstrong was. Fewer people, though still a significant number, know Buzz Aldrin’s name, but the name of third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins, has largely been forgotten.
In 1969, the year of the famous lunar landing, Collins was described as “the loneliest person in the universe,” because he was tasked with the truly frightening mission: While his two fellow astronauts landed on the surface of the moon, planted a flag and went sightseeing, Collins watched over their spaceship. He circled the moon in total darkness for 21 hours – more than enough time to think about his life, his friends and what they could expect when they returned home. Thanks to Collins’ skills as a pilot, Aldrin and Armstrong were able to rendezvous with the spacecraft and made it back to planet Earth. Ever since then, space has become the new frontier just waiting to be conquered, and the figure of the astronaut has replaced that of the classic explorer.
Even though director James Gray tends to look to the past, it’s not surprising that he has turned his attention to space. His previous two films, “The Immigrant” and “The Lost City of Z,” were set at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, but their goal was not historical reconstruction as such. The two movies served Gray as vehicles for a stimulating reflection on mankind and progress, loneliness and humanity.
Gray’s newest film, “Ad Astra” (which means “to the stars,” in Latin), looks like a Hollywood blockbuster and has a budget, a cast and a high-voltage marketing campaign to match. But there is something misleading here. While Gray gives viewers a dose impressive special effects, his inspiration is more “2001: A Space Odyssey” than “Star Wars.”
The story takes place in a “not so distant future,” when the human species has gradually spread into space. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut who works on an enormous antenna tower that stretches up there from the ground. In an era when there is no shortage of astronauts, McBride’s work looks difficult but it’s not particularly glamorous; he’s a kind of upgraded building renovator. What does set him apart, however, is his genealogy: His father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary, archetypical stellar explorer, had been dispatched to look for signs of intelligent life in the universe, became the first person to reach Neptune and had disappeared, 16 years earlier. When mysterious power surges from Neptune begin to strike Earth, including Roy’s antenna, he is sent on a secret mission to track down their source. The big question is whether his father is still alive and whether he is responsible for the electrical phenomenon.
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Eschewing (overly) extravagant technology, Gray sets out to make maximum science and minimum fiction. That’s not really feasible in a science-fiction movie, of course, but an impressive effort is made to keep the human presence and settlement in space as down-to-earth as possible. A case in point is McBride’s first trip as a passenger on a Virgin Galactic flight, on which a blanket costs $125. The moon is only a stopover, like Istanbul or Kiev, and the first thing he sees when he lands there is a branch of the Subway chain. This is only the first stop in a journey that, as in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” draws inspiration from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
The world that Gray creates raises fascinating questions, which are given impressive visual representation by Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography, recalling the striking work he did in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” With precise direction and photography, space is presented as an endless void, hostile and indifferent to human beings. In his previous movie, “The Lost City of Z,” Gray dealt with the real-life explorer Percy Fawcett, who got lost in the jungle and disappeared. In that picture, as in “Ad Astra,” the story is a springboard for a psychological and philosophical inquiry into the human need for a horizon – physical and symbolic alike. This time, too, he deals with the final stage of a process of exploring and mapping new lands, which for him assume a historical and mythical dimension.
The screenplay, by Gray and Ethan Gross – who both also co-wrote “The Lost City of Z” – makes no allowances for naïve and optimistic fantasies about space. Instead, the film offers a subtle comparison with European colonialist patterns of the modern age and the American expansion westward in the 19th century. The way stations, such as the moon and Mars, recall the arrogance with which the white man approached the cultures of Asia, America and Africa. The aspiration to make the wilderness bloom and forge a new human being is shattered by the discovery that there is nothing new under the sun and that humans are the same humans. In fact, the farther the protagonist ventures into space, into the remote frontier, the more human shortcomings rise to the surface. In such a vast, wide-open expanse, where there are very few consequences, nation-states try to conquer, corporations try to make a profit and people revert to a war of all-against-all. A car-chase scene on the moon, which evokes “Mad Max,” is an enjoyable reminder of this.
Because the director aims for a possible and reasonable future, he has no interest in the universe or the galaxy, only in the solar system. Like the settlers in the United States who imagined a land stretching endlessly, until they reached the West Coast – Gray, too, wants to probe the psychological rupture this awareness generates. His intriguing choice is to place in the center not the explorer, like Fawcett in his previous film, but the explorer’s son. Brad Pitt’s Roy has no new world to discover, but rather an existing world that needs to be rescued. The immense black void that surrounds and diminishes it, are a reminder of what remained behind, and lend the film a meditative intimacy.
Pitt, as the heir to Marlow or Willard, plays McBride as a stoic, taciturn astronaut who is chosen for the mission ostensibly because he knows to exercise prudence under pressure; his pulse never rises above 80, no matter what. The fact that he left his wife behind (she’s played by Liv Tyler in a small, superfluous role) and is heading for a possible encounter with his missing father doesn’t make him bat an eyelash. His ambition is to carry out the mission and to take yet another step into the great unknown. But Gray subverts Pitt’s performance with the aid of incessant narration that simplistically conveys the emotional processes he undergoes. The director doesn’t give his audience enough credit when trying to understand McBride’s inner tumult, and the entire subtext becomes a declarative text. In the absence of any significant supporting character in the film, the director intensifies his protagonist’s emotional alienation from the people in his life, and thereby also prevents viewers from becoming immersed in it and in his journey.
“Ad Astra” joins the growing list of films in the current decade that are searching for realism in outer space: from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” to Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” to Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.” In this densely crowded field, Gray’s picture mostly resembles the latter, even though it is based on the true story of Neil Armstrong. Gray also presents a distant and emotionally crippled protagonist, but he doesn’t give Pitt the leeway to round out his character. The effort to reconstruct the philosophical spirit and visual boldness of “2001: A Space Odyssey” is effective when it comes to reflections on the future of the human species, but the additional questions that are raised – about humankind, father-son relations and the emotional baggage that people inherit – don’t cohere into a substantive statement.
Gray is a talented director with a singular touch who tends to leave viewers without a clear conclusion but with a host of thoughts. “Ad Astra” does that, too, but its reach exceeds its grasp. As a Hollywood production with a fat budget and a big star, it creates a spectacular world with an alluring conceptual foundation. It also has several action scenes that are likely to satisfy the general audience, but it’s important to note that these are brief, well scattered segments whose purpose is to allow the protagonist to reflect on the infinite blackness that surrounds him. That demands patience, which is rewarded only in part.