Ad Astra is an astonishing achievement. A space drama set in the ‘near future’, its sombre tone and careful pacing are sure to divide audiences expecting a Brad Pitt-helmed space thriller more akin to Interstellar than, say, High Life. While Ad Astra’s narrative arc does cursorily resemble that of a space action film – complete with Mad Max-esque moon buggy chases, zero-gravity battles and a surprise Alien homage – true to form, James Gray has instead crafted an achingly emotional examination of masculinity’s failures from within its wreckage.
Brad Pitt’s protagonist, astronaut Roy McBride, initially appears a paragon of masculinity. And not necessarily toxic masculinity. He’s calm, collected and competent; driven by duty and steadfast in his commitment to what he perceives as the greater good. As his superiors note, even under extreme pressure his pulse never exceeds 80 beats per minute. Granted, his relationship with his (ex?)-wife Eve (Liv Tyler) crumbled due to his relentless work ethic, but American cinema and television alike are dotted with heroes whose sense of duty surpasses their relationships – and are celebrated for it.
It’s not long before Roy’s principles are tested, with the discovery that his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) – the world’s most celebrated astronaut after disappearing on a journey to the edge of the solar system three decades prior – may still be alive. This revelation sends Roy out on a journey into space; first the Moon, then Mars, and finally all the way to Neptune where his father lurks, Kurtz-like, at the fringes of the solar system.
While, as mentioned, the particulars of Roy’s journey resemble that of a B-grade space movie, Gray renders it as a classically-shot, emotionally resonant interrogation of masculinity in crisis. Drawing on influences from decades prior – 2001: A Space Odyssey most obviously, but also Apocalypse Now, Solaris and countless other fragments of ‘70s cinema – Ad Astra’s aesthetic is at once familiar and shockingly original, with images that sear themselves into one’s consciousness. It’s not idle stylism, either; Gray’s deft touch ensures that these images throb with a sense of loss and longing.
The narrative structure is episodic, owing an unmistakable debt to Conrad as each step on Roy’s journey sends him further into a spiral of self-doubt. At each juncture, we observe another facet of male inadequacy. A self-possessed military man (Sean Blakemore) whose confidence proves ill-founded. An elderly mentor (Donald Sutherland) unprepared for the strains of space travel. An easy-going space shuttle captain (Donnie Keshawarz) whose commitment to protocol has a grisly end. All through it, Roy remains steadfast on the surface – but tumult reigns below.
That tumult is vividly realised through Pitt’s remarkable performance. Fresh off playing an entirely different kind of action hero in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, here he begins as Neil-Armstrong-esque archetype: stony-faced and good-hearted. But fundamentally flawed. It isn’t until he comes face-to-face with his father in the film’s third act that the inadequacy of his commitment to service is laid clear. Roy’s ideals are counterfeit, founded on and through an intricate structure of masculinity that’s imprisoned any honest emotionality beneath a façade of über-competence (and more than a few daddy issues). As in We Own the Night, Gray presents a seemingly-impenetrable pretence of male strength before allowing it to erode beneath waves of authentic emotion.
It’s reductive to an extent to simplify Ad Astra down to simply a fable of masculinity. It’s also an examination of scientific progress, a speculative vision of the future and an almost spiritual reflection of our place in the universe. It’s perhaps not geared to mainstream audiences, if those griping about the implausibility of its action scenes behind me during the film’s credits are anything to go by. But for me, it’s the apex of Gray’s career and a legitimate modern classic.