“Are you ready for your psychological evaluation?” It’s the computer prompt that astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) responds to in minute detail every morning. There’s something rehearsed about the cadence in which Roy responds to the question, as if to suggest that he’s answered this question ad nauseam, prepared to reaffirm a stranger’s perception of what constitutes being well-adjusted. It’s one of those ridiculous but necessary aspects of his day-in and day-out and it’s the sort of thing that is best mitigated by embracing a palatable lie. And so Roy conceals the truth: the truth about missing his wife (Liv Tyler) and the truth about his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones), now gone for nearly three decades after what was presumed to be a failed mission to Neptune. Instead he dedicates himself to the now, his “eye on the exit,” with the hope that whatever insular, emotional hemorrhaging he encounters can be compartmentalized, stowed away and forgotten. The instinct is, painfully, an all too relatable one.
James Gray’s filmography has been littered with incredible examinations on masculine ennui, on the lassitude that comes with failure and disappointing those you love. His films of the past ten years or so – Two Lovers, The Immigrant, and The Lost City of Z - have been particularly insightful ruminations on the smallness of Man, on the tragic likelihood of dedicating our lives to false idols. Ad Astra is no different, uniting his themes to the literal cosmos, reevaluating the petty concerns that are fixtures in our day and giving them the weight of Greek tragedy. I felt Ad Astra in my nerve endings, not (just) for its stunning visions of solitude when faced with the bleak unknown, but for how those concerns spoke to my present; how, deep down, like Roy, I know that “I’ve been harsh when I should have been tender.” There’s freedom in the kind of honesty that Gray expresses and as a result Ad Astra sings.
Despite the gravitas and internal nature of Ad Astra, it comes as a bit of a surprise as to how set piece-oriented the film can be. A major sequence, set on the “International Space Antenna” – a towering Earth-based structure that reaches the heights of the stratosphere –finds Roy working along side a coterie of other astronauts. It’s here where a massive electrical surge causes many of them to plummet back to Earth, including Roy. The sequence is breathless, with Roy’s body tumbling from reachable space back to the terra firma. Yet he remains calm and collected, his heartbeat never exceeding 80 beats per minute. He’s the visage of stoic masculinity, a veneer of naked singularity to those around him, yet, as we overhear through his wounded voiceover, a man riddled with anxiety, prone to loneliness. Simply put: broken.
Assigned to research the whereabouts of his father and his presumed failed mission, Roy is dispatched to Neptune by way of the Earth’s moon and Mars. If the moon sequence is riddled with a cynical anxiety (Roy will frequently remark on his disgust of the commercialization of the moon’s real estate, where we see the marquees of familiar American fast food restaurants illuminate the terrain), it’s on Mars where the film is at its most operatic. A dusty vibrancy commands these sequences, where Roy’s unchecked ghosts get the better of him. His longing to answer the unanswerable questions lets darkness creep within him. The broken man finds himself in silent transit, having given up those before him in exchange of knowing what happened to his father. His thoughts gravitate to what’s missing, whatever’s lost. Again, this instinct is, painfully, an all too relatable one.
Gray’s explored this Aguirre-esque paranoia and obsession before, with Fawcett’s to-the-death search for “Z”, Ewa’s unyielding ambition to make it in America in The Immigrant, and Leonard’s misguided need to love and be loved in Two Lovers. In Ad Astra, Gray’s prevailing suggestion is that these obsessive tendencies that serve to isolate us from all those who love us is, inherently, a matter of choice. A matter of control. Roy, when left to himself, gets quiet and embittered. From planet to planet to planet, the astronaut becomes more hermitic. He’s most alive in dreams. The brief glimpses of Roy’s wife are lensed with a vivid urgency. They’re fleeting, but profoundly impactful, and resemble, paradoxically, a source of grief and hope. But darkness wins far too often and the hurt of one relationship tends to reverberate and echo onto others. But the cosmos is a darker place to Roy without his knowing about the whereabouts of his father and it’s the question that takes him to the fringe.
I love Ad Astra for being a film both about despair and dreams, pain and grace. It’s about someone who knows they shouldn’t be alone but does just that because they don’t know how else to cope. It takes Man a trip through the outer reaches of the galaxy to embrace the notion that he doesn’t have to go alone. It certainly feels that way sometimes. To embrace the idea that you were never meant, never supposed, to be Alone. We’re all we got and that has to be good enough. So we take that despair and pain that wounded us in one relationship and try to find redemption in another. Roy smiles in this film once and the moment that happens you can’t help but feel like it resembles some sort of confession, some underlying Truth: life need not be a tragedy.