Does the world need another movie about a middle-aged white man riding a spaceship into the dark to save the world /redeem himself? Well, that’s what we got. AD ASTRA is a conspicuously old-fashioned film that honours its ageing stars. Yet I was intrigued to see NASA feting Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones before it premiered. Because AD ASTRA’s weary dystopian mood deconstructs the heady 60s optimism of NASA’s recent lunar anniversary. When Pitt’s Roy McBride makes it onto the moonbus, he’s appalled by the tourism and spaceshop tat. ‘Take a look at that blue marble,’ drawls Donald Sutherland, as a grizzled lunar astro-veteran who hogs the screen. ‘It never ceases to amaze me.’ Dead-eyed Major McBride is unmoved by Earthrise, even as their bumpy space buggy journey recalls the glory days of Apollo astronauts. They’re crossing a dangerous No Man’s Land between disputed lunar territories and mining operations. And sure enough, here come the moon-pirates, forcing him over a crater edge, into the great dark of the Far Side. ‘Here we go again,’ muses McBride, ‘fighting over resources.’ So predictable does he find it, his heart rate never quickens.
Indeed, that’s kinda the point of McBride. In the film’s recurring story beat, he takes one Psych. Evaluation after another, slapping an electrode sticker to his jugular. It’s his boast that his pulse rate never exceeds 80. McBride takes Neil Armstrong’s famous sang froid to a whole other level (even re-playing Armstrong’s hair-raising landing at one point). And it’s not for want of director James Gray trying to get our pulses racing. He opens with McBride hanging onto a gigantic space ladder stretching from Earth to the Space Station, carrying out maintenance along with other orange-suited astronauts. Within moments, a catastrophe from above sends them hurtling towards the planet. It’s not as visceral or impressive as the space accident in GRAVITY, but I did love how Arthur C Clarke’s vision of a space escalator was realised. The design values of the film are immersive here, as on Mars later, with its smoky orange light and underground bunkers. Clearly NASA’s expertise as film consultants and their real-space footage helped no end.
Yet every interlude of out-and-out peril leaves McBride untouched. Because, as he quietly explains to the Psych. Eval. machine, he’s congenitally unable to ‘open himself up’ to relationship or risk. That’s all down to space-hero father (Lee Jones) who abandoned him for a mission to the edges of the solar system. Believed dead decades ago, Mc Bride Senior still haunts Roy through old comms-link footage. Now according to SPACECOMMS, the ultimate astronaut has gone rogue, threatening all human life with inexplicable cosmic rays. (Best not to dwell on the physics.) On Roy’s voyage to meet his maker, the spaceship’s detour to answer a SOS call on an isolated asteroid was odd, to say the least. But this lurch into space horror with man-eating baboons does provide Roy with a metaphor for his father’s darker side. A rage he remembers and fears in himself. Hence the compartmentalisation and chilly self-restraint.
The movie’s true subject is how the Right Stuff of Space Race heroism morphed into the Toxic Maculinity of our own age. In a red-lit recording studio on Mars, McBride struggles to communicate with his father via long-distance transmissions overseen by company bureaucrats. Never has the male heart-to-heart been more one-way or awkward. In contrast, Ruth Negga is criminally underused in the film’s only serious female role. She has about 5 minutes to deliver the truth about his father and offer him a lift into the Martian desert. Meanwhile in mournful flashbacks, Liv Tyler plays the same luminous Woman Left Behind role as in Lord of the Rings. At a time when NASA is pushing for the First Woman on the Moon in their upcoming Artemis mission, that’s beyond old-fashioned.
It’s all about the Men, and only two men at that. Ruth Negga aside, POC characters are glimpsed drifting though the cabin, adding to the body count. The last Act lets Pitt and Lee Jones slog it out alone for Oscars nominations above Neptune’s blue rim. Lee Jones does craggy and deranged in a decrepit woollie, muttering about god and aliens, while son Pitt tenderly suits him up for an EVA. Their scuffled wrestling has to pass for Oedipal closure. AD ASTRA aspires to the eerie psychodrama of Solaris but it’s not in the same galaxy. However entertaining the visual design and space tropes, the emotional numbness never wears off. ‘In the end, the son suffers the sins of the father,’ McBride intones in another Psych. Eval. monologue. Ultimately, it was hard to care. But do climb aboard for the ride across the solar system. Those planets outshine everything.
AD ASTRA, Director James Gray, August 2019