Bad Dad Astra

“Ad Astra” is an ambitious movie, both thematically and visually audacious. It succeeds as a first-rate portrayal of space travel during a minor cinematic boom of “hard” science fiction movies (that is, sci-fi meant to look like it could actually happen). But it fails on an emotional and thematic level, hamstrung by self-seriousness and a constant need to tell the audience about the Big Problems it claims to confront.

Set in a “near future” where human space exploration has progressed to the edges of the solar system, “Ad Astra” centers around a decorated astronaut, Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt. McBride is legendary for the fact that his heartbeat has never been recorded above 80 bpm, even during combat and high-speed space disasters. McBride’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), is even more famous than his son; he has a plaque next to Buzz Aldrin’s at NASA headquarters. But he’s been lost for almost twenty years, sent on the “Lima Expedition” to Neptune that sought to scan the “known universe” for intelligent life. Officially, the Lima Expedition vanished mysteriously. But as Roy learns, NASA believes that Clifford is still alive, and potentially dangerous. Increasingly large electrical surges are emanating from the last known location of the Lima vessel, periodically knocking out power worldwide and killing tens of thousands.

Enter Roy, chosen by NASA to try to contact his father in the hopes that a son’s plea will prompt a response. He sets off on a journey to a communication station on Mars, with stops on the moon and an abandoned Finnish research station on the way. But the real journey, as the film reminds us over and over, through incessant voice-over, is Roy’s search for some sort of closure with his father, whom he resents for leaving and desperately wants to speak to again. We know this because director James Grey uses the device of constant, computerized psychological evaluations for Roy to tell us exactly what he’s thinking. This violates the “show, don’t tell” rule of good writing, but it’s really the only option for this film, given Pitt’s acting choices. He commits, hard, to making the audience believe that Roy’s heart rate really never has gone above 80 bpm, speaking in a monotone and rarely showing any sign of an inner life. Pitt is a good actor, and portraying Roy as alienated and emotionless makes sense given the themes the movie is trying to explore, but reducing Roy to a very handsome automaton means that his character’s arc, the central conflict of the movie, feels strangely flat. 

That conflict — the idea that the search for intelligent life may well be fruitless and the unforgiving reaches of space hold no spiritual lessons for humanity — serves as a counterpoint to more mystical recent sci-fi films like “Arrival” and “Interstellar,” as well as last year’s historical drama, “First Man.” It leaves “Ad Astra” as a kind of “Apocalypse Now” in space; at one point, Clifford, revealed to be definitely still alive and definitely unhinged, declares to his NASA superiors that he is “beyond your moral principles.” Paging Colonel Kurtz, please.

But Grey also folds in a narrative about Roy’s quest for his distant father as a stand-in for a distant, possibly absent, God. Without giving too much away, Roy and his father’s respective missions both seek to find enlightenment in outer space, whether through a search for life, for a father, or for the Father. Grey seems to accept Freud’s view of the religious quest as a combination of wish fulfillment and a desire for a father figure.  Roy searches for Clifford, hoping to confirm that his father never really meant to leave him orphaned. Clifford scans the universe for intelligent life, first as a scientist on a divine mission, then as a delusional mystic who rejects scientific evidence. This tension is one of the weakest parts of the film; implicitly accepting the facile premise that a search for God (or ultimate meaning) hinges on what “science” can confirm or deny. It’s barely undergraduate-level philosophy. 

And like his previous film about fathers and sons seeking salvation on journeys of exploration, “The Lost City of Z,” “Ad Astra” feels weighed down by its own seriousness. Visually impressive action sequences, including moon pirates and (I’m not kidding) baboons, felt weightless, out of tune with the rest of the film and serving no larger plot purpose. The film can be didactic: at one point, tethered to Roy as they whizz past the rings of Neptune, Clifford screams “you have to let me go!” It was also strangely affectless throughout: “I am looking forward to the day my solitude ends,” declares Pitt at one point. I was looking forward to the day he started talking like a human being. 

All of this is not to obscure the film’s real strengths. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (of “Interstellar” and “Her”) does stunning work, utilizing the reds of Mars and the blues of Neptune to create striking color compositions. An opening sequence, in which Pitt plummets from a spire reaching into the stratosphere, will have audiences’ hearts in their throats. And the world Hoytema and Grey create has all the little details needed for engaging sci-fi: the Hudson Booksellers in the lunar “airport,” the eerie “comfort rooms” with birds and plants projected on the walls in the Mars colony. But all the light and image never translates into deeply felt emotion. “Ad Astra” is certainly watchable, but it can’t bear its self-imposed weight. 

Featured image courtesy of wikipedia.org

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