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Film
by Karin Lowachee

Ad Astra Per Corde
(To the Stars Through the Heart)

 

Is Ad Astra a perfect film? No. The James Gray-directed science fiction psychological epic has flaws: technical, when it comes to the science; plot-wise, when it comes to the logic of things; and bias, some would say, when it doesn't allow for any prominent female characters. But does Ad Astra accomplish what it sets out to do—to convey the internality of a man's desperate loneliness and his inability to emotionally connect? Yes it does, and it succeeds beautifully.

At a glance, Ad Astra presents a straightforward narrative. Astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, proving once again he is the most famous, underrated actor in Hollywood), son of a renowned astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, always dependable), goes in search of his missing father at the behest of the U.S. Space Command. Dangerous antimatter pulses have been hitting Earth, wreaking havoc and almost killing Roy at the beginning of the film. These surges seem to be emanating from Clifford McBride's last known location near Neptune. Roy lost his father at a young age when the elder McBride went dark on an exploratory intersolar mission. The audience soon learns that Roy also lost his mother to illness, and his wife (Liv Tyler) to separation well into his career. Roy is isolated physically, emotionally, and mentally. The parallels to his father's mission to discover proof of other intelligent life and the mystery surrounding it aren't subtle.

Much has been made of the father-son storyline and stoic man trope, the heroic astronaut who struggles in his personal life, canopied by the unrelenting void of space and the opportunity it offers if he would just confront it and by doing so, confront the internal void his life has become. Yes, the narrative arc and symbolic nature of the vast distances and cold darkness of the cosmos are perhaps too on the nose. There are dramatic moments, including a thrilling Mad Max-style moon buggy chase and an animal experiment gone wrong aboard a far-flung space station. But in this quiet epic where the significant orbital shifts occur internally, whatever backdrop director Gray provides is simply that: backdrop. We aren't supposed to place all of the external elements ahead of the story that unfolds within the younger McBride, which is often subtle and depicted with restraint, revealed as much by what Pitt doesn't do as what he does. To concentrate unduly on the granular nature of external plot and scientific accuracy is a willful distraction: Acknowledge those problems and move on. Conversely, it is too easy to dismiss the nuance of the world within worlds churning in McBride.

Gray and Pitt—accompanied deftly by the "galactic antique" cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) and the spare, poignant score by Max Richter (Arrival)—manage to paint a story so rooted in McBride's often stifled emotional torment that it's no wonder many critics missed the forest for the trees. Directly evoking the flavor of both Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (with a dash of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity), this is a film made for the spaces between lines, the liminal no man's land where emotions muddle and become pushed down by a lifetime of neglect or maladaptation. Roy McBride is a broken man—not defeated, but a walking shatter, despite outward appearances. The first scene of him moving through technicians who smile and wish him well while his internal monologue sets out the thesis of himself—that he's wearing a mask, his outside doesn't match his insides—is meant to cue the viewer that despite the special effects and star power behind this movie, this is a story about internal/external contradiction. The feat of depicting that on screen for a popular audience is complicated, especially when audiences tend to expect clear-cut lines, easily readable emotional motivations, and an active protagonist. The latter is especially true when it comes to traditional heroes like McBride, and actors like Brad Pitt.

The fact is, McBride is not propelling his own fate. While he lives an outwardly daring and adventurous life as an ex-military astronaut, he is essentially passive and withdrawn emotionally. He can't rouse himself to stop his wife from leaving him (also shown in the first few minutes of the film); his heartbeat remains steady, not involved in every test; he offers bland, acceptable answers to pass the regular psych checkups: he is fooling everyone, even himself, that he is fine. But he is not fine, and his not-fineness reveals itself through the course of the narrative. This is the actual plot of the film.

James Gray also penned the screenplay, along with Ethan Goss, and one can only imagine the conversations between them and star/producer Pitt as they worked out the schematic of showing an entirely introverted psychological arc through an extroverted space movie. Though the throughline of McBride's journey is made clear early on, the events as he travels to Neptune seem disconnected and random. Even his accident in the beginning, though tied to the antimatter pulses and thus his father's mystery, is given short shrift in lieu of sending him into the stars via the Moon, Mars, and eventually to deep space. Along the way the bodies pile up (also a parallel to his father) and an external plot-driven focus might ask: What is it all for?

The events seem disconnected because they don't really matter. They're life, one possibly bad decision after another connected by consequences and their fallout. If there is any puppeteering by the filmmakers, it's for the sake of McBride's emotional journey as someone struggling to break free from his own mind and the patterns of his life. These patterns become disrupted over the course of the movie, shown through Roy's widening fissures—whether that's in barely released tears or a rising sense of frustration and regret, and his growing inability to fool the psychological tests, or himself. To someone looking for a broad or obvious example of emotional change, they won't find it. Viewers wishing Gray had omitted the almost somnambulant voice-overs in order to cast the film more directly under the shadow of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey would have lost the essential cues to Roy's mental state and the dissonance with his external actions. The tension lies precisely between what Roy is thinking/feeling, and what everyone else is seeing—what he is presenting to the outside world. The truth of himself lies trapped, even dormant, in the core of his being. The depth of his loneliness and isolation is more painful, not because he's shouting his pain to the universe, but because it is pushed down.

This acute examination of a man's self-silencing is something never much explored in cinema. If the man is stoic, he's considered strong, desirable, and effective; this is especially common in Westerns, the blueprint for so much science fiction. Often, the female protagonists, understandably, are given the dilemma of emotional subsuming in order to function in a patriarchal world. In Ad Astra, the expectations of such a world and their effects on an otherwise "successful" man are interrogated, and the conclusion is scathing: The price for such an antiquated definition of strength and masculinity does nothing but damage the man. Equally important, McBride's unacknowledged vulnerability hurts his relationships, not his ability to get the job done in whatever way is required. Vulnerability doesn't make you stupid or inept, contradictory to what is an adjacent societal narrative, especially as it applies to women—but men are not exempt either. People can be perfectly capable whilst still being emotionally vulnerable: this is a universal truth that needs to be amplified, whether for men or women.

The women in the film are virtually nonexistent because Roy is completely disconnected from them, from any ability to open himself enough to let anyone in. When the point of the movie is to show a man's extremely inward-focused struggle, to shoehorn a female character into his life in a more prominent way would detract from that narrative: He has no room for distractions in his compartmentalized world. That is his precise problem. Thus, his wife Eve and even Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), an administrator on Mars, are relegated to positions on the other side of a cavernous divide. They remain ubiquitous but disconnected from Roy, and thus the narrative as a whole.

The boldness of Ad Astra isn't in the breathtaking scenery, action sequences, or any attempt to tell an airtight space movie plot. Like Roy McBride himself, the courage lies in the necessity of a film that examines the intricate, often misunderstood, and deeply difficult environment of a man's own emotional damage and his endeavor to heal. We won't have to confront deep space to find such healing; the more frightening prospect is the confrontation of the self.

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