On the path to Clifford, Gray takes the viewer on a tour of an imagined future. The moon has been commercialized straight out of Futurama, though the tourists must stay out of restricted areas where pirates are running rampant. Private interests are treating space like uncharted waters, shooting out floating labs where all manner of illicit research is being carried out. It’s all eerily plausible in such a way that viewers of the future might laugh at some misses, or be impressed at those areas that Gray and cowriter Ethan Gross accurately predicted.
The various stops call to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece, but so does the personage of Clifford. Still believed to be a long-lost hero by the public, those in the know have a darker view and, in Kurtz’s parlance, send their grocery clerks out to collect a bill. Roy isn’t sent on an assassination mission exactly, but those pulses are coming from somewhere and one doesn’t cast Jones just so he can be put into a spacesuit for a framed picture. Like Apocalypse Now, the film grinds down those accompanying Roy on different legs of his journey until it’s just him for those last few miles, and there is some anticlimactic discussion between the hunter and the hunted. As numerous as the comparisons are, Gray picks a strong example to borrow from, and the transplant from the jungle to space works nicely and intuitively.
Between cinematic homages, Gray is letting the viewer into what seems like his own personal view on space travel. Both McBrides simply don’t have much use for their fellows, and Gray’s humanist filmography doesn’t share that sentiment. The takeaway from Ad Astra, especially in relation to the search for extraterrestrial life, is that earth is enough, or it would be if it could be made perpetually habitable. The film’s vision of the future contains small references to a near-religious awakening in the citizenry around the concerted effort to find new life, and the possibility that there isn’t life anywhere else is treated as the equivalent of a spiritual crisis of faith. If there’s nothing else, then life, or at least life without vast support systems, is constrained to the pale blue dot it originated on. Characters react to this with despair or optimism, and Gray’s finger on the scale is apparent. One doesn’t have to imagine what he thinks of the Jeff Bezos’ and Elon Musk’s of the world dumping their billions into space programs when there are plenty of earthbound causes that could use that money.
Ad Astra’s visual aesthetic is calibrated to match its protagonist’s preference for the competent and the efficient. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, broken into the space genre by Interstellar, is doing incredible things with shadows and profiles, and the film has a you-are-there feel, especially during that opening elevator fall, but there is a something missing from certain moments of the film. A director like Darren Aronofsky went for broke in the space-faring parts of The Fountain, and Gray presents himself with a similar opportunity during a particularly difficult leg of Roy’s journey. However, the stresses of zero gravity and the strain of isolation during this leg is communicated through voiceover instead of through the visuals. Ad Astra contains other sequences like this of characters moving from point A to point B, but the opportunity for inventiveness or artistic flourish is missed.
That said, if one must be with an actor in transit, Pitt is a fine one to take the viewer there. In the midst of his best year since the 2011 double whammy of Tree of Life and Moneyball, the Pitt of 2019 played the ultimate sidekick in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and in Ad Astra, he has to carry vast swathes of the film alone. More versatile than he’s given credit for, he can do both and more. For as even-keeled as Roy McBride is, Pitt instills him with a level of vulnerability that gives the film an emotional heft based on well-placed pauses combined with the way his voice briefly catches in his throat. In the supporting cast, Ruth Negga strikes an incredible figure as the boss of a Mars base. As good as Pitt is, the film’s not at its best watching him move between destinations. Negga, with her composure and her pinched mien and her more interesting face compared to Pitt’s classical good looks, doesn’t have that problem.
Ad Astra functions as a kind of anti-Contact, a movie I love if only for a deep attachment to its inspiration, Carl Sagan. Contact, with its similar search for extraterrestrial life, never doubted that its goals were noble and worthy. Ad Astra isn’t so sure, especially at a time of such uncertainty on earth. Gray hasn’t made a film for terra-bound Luddites exactly, but he does wonder why humans can’t be enough. We can make something as striking and perhaps prophetic as this, and we can put a very attractive human specimen at its center. As a species, we’re doing something right. B+