Emotionally distant astronauts seek knowledge of cosmos and self in “Ad Astra”
by lumpenmagazine · October 7, 2019
directed by James Gray
written by James Gray & Ethan Gross
acted by Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland
produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan
presented by Plan B Entertainment
distributed by Twentieth Century Fox
MPAA-rated PG-13 “for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language.”
running time: 124 minutes
by Bill Stamets
“Ad Astra” is the sci-fi odyssey of a second-generation astronaut. “A paranoid thriller in space” is what Plan B Entertainment calls this grade-A film directed and co-written by James Gray. That hardly gets at how thoughtfully Gray tones his drama of two emotionally distant astronauts– father and son– reunited in the orbit of Neptune. Paranoia and thriller motifs find their place in a plot where saving our solar system is at stake.
Brad Pitt plays Maj. Roy McBride. Tommy Lee Jones plays his father Dr. H. Clifford McBride, who abandoned his 16-year-old son and wife for a voyage to the outer limits of our solar system. There our sun’s magnetic field does not affect the deep space telescope on board. The Lima Project’s mission was to scan the universe for signs of intelligent life. Contact with the vessel under the command of Clifford McBride was lost 16 years leaving earth. “Ad Astra” is set 13 years later.
“Ad Astra” opens with Roy McBride, having chosen his father’s vocation at SpaceCom, at work on the International Space Antennae. Built upwards from the earth’s surface, this spectacular structure rises into near space. It will empower seekers distant intelligence. But an electromagnetic surge originating in far space damages “the world’s largest antennae.” Roy falls to earth for a sensationally crafted thrill. Subsequent action is scaled to propel the narrative, never to divert from Gray’s sobering take on fearless explorers as flawed self-knowers.
Max Richter, who sublimely scored Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi film “Arrival,” links the McBrides’ quests in an uncanny sonic envelope. Angst-laced atmospherics befit a two-fold cover-up. First, the government lies about highly classified Mayday transmissions from the Lima spacecraft prior to its supposed disappearance in the rings of Neptune. Second, those in the know must prevent end-of-the world panic. More incoming pulses will kill us all unless stopped.
Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross handle sci-fi tropes discreetly. There is no montage of innocents and monuments around the world, obligatory in other planet-in-peril films. Exposition-by-TV-news is limited to: “A series of destructive electrical storms have wrecked havoc across the globe and scientists are concerned we’ve not seen the last of them yet. Their origin? Outer space. The cause, unknown so far.“ That’s the official line, at least. Roy gradually learns the underlying truth during his top secret assignment.
Future gizmos are not fetishized. The phrase “secure direct laser link” gets several replays, although this particular tech is far from earth-shattering. Unrelated astrophysicist chat taught me what “heliosphere” means. Everyday life on earth sounds familiar in “The Near Future” when the film is set. A dispatcher shares with the SpaceCom antennae crew: “Iowa State over Kansas, 35-16.”
“Ad Astra” plays off a scene in the sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Flying “commercial” so as not to draw notice, Roy takes a 43,012-mile flight to the moon on Virgin Atlantic. He pays the attendant $125 for a “blanket and pillow pack.” A hot towel before landing is complimentary. Her uniform is conspicuously less snazzy than the one Hardy Amies, longtime royal outfitter, designed for her counterpart in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film. Roy’s “2001” counterpart took a Pan Am shuttle on a much posher trip to an earth-orbital space station with accommodations by Hilton. Set 33 years after its year of release, Kubrick’s film imagined a future sleeker than the one Gray describes in his own feature, released 18 years after actual 2001.
Unlike the austere moon in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the moon where Roy lands is a crappy tourist trap patrolled by armed soldiers. A trademarked Las Vegas Cowboy red neon sign is erected on the lunar surface, a far cry from the modernist black monolith in “2001.”
Roy muses darkly in a voiceover: “All the hopes we ever had for space travel covered up by drink stands and tee-shirt vendors. Just a recreation of what we’re running from on earth. We are world-eaters. If my dad could see this now he’d tear it all down.” That prediction echoes government fears that the elder McBride could be undertaking an inconceivably vast teardown. The press kit, not necessarily reflecting the film in its finished form, characterizes the power surges as “potential acts of terrorism.”
The United States Armed Forces Space Division takes over the next leg of Roy’s trip. He is met by Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), retired from SpaceCom after a 31-year career as a lunar astronaut. He knew Roy’s dad from their college days at Purdue. They had a falling out. “He accused me of being a traitor,” Pruitt confides. A Pruitt line that’s in the “Ad Astra” trailer but not the completed film– “Exploration isn’t always a noble venture”– underscores Gray’s cautionary theme.
Miners, bandits and pirates overrun the “borderless” moon. “It’s like the wild west out there,” Roy is warned. He observes in a voiceover: “Here we go again, fighting over resources. What the hell am I doing here?”
The screenplay leans on interior monologues. Brad Pitt’s line readings of his deep thoughts evoke the melancholic metaphysics voiced on recent Terrence Malick soundtracks. Exiting the “Ad Astra” press screening, I obliged a publicist soliciting comments to relay to the studio with this glib tagline: “Terrence Malick does `Gravity’– in a good way, I mean.”
Gray and Gross adopt an expository device once favored in the epistolary novel– embedding texts in the plot. Digital files of audio-video messages transmitted across space are a fixture in space cinema, along with data recorders and captains’ logs. Where too is the occasional home movie clip.
Less common are employer-mandated assessments of soul and psyche like the “psych evaluations” Roy self-administers and dutifully submits to SpaceCom operations via an AI/HR interface. He concludes each of his clinical introspections with an update on his resting heart rate. If his metrics pass muster, an automated voice informs him he is “approved” to proceed to the next phase of his task. Pitt does some of his most revelatory acting in these terse existential soliloquies.
From the moon Roy catches a 19-day flight to Mars to make his next connection. En route another radioactive burst will endanger the spacecraft.
“Ad Astra” nods to “Alien,” Ridley Scott’s 1979 film set entirely in space. A commercial ship picks up what the onboard computer interprets as a distress signal. The science officer cites their contract to the homeward bound crew: “any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated.” A similar protocol applies to the U. S. Space Command vessel taking Roy to Mars. Its crew must alter course to aid a Norwegian “biomedical and animal research” ship that sent out a Mayday call. As in “Alien,” a vicious face-attacking flesh-shredding creature is discovered onboard. It’s not alien– not to spoil too much in this minor subplot of “Ad Astra.” In his next evaluation, Roy shares: “The attack was full of rage. I understand that rage. I’ve seen that rage in my father. I’ve seen that rage in me… I don’t want to be my dad.”
Gray forsakes a science fiction commonplace that casts aliens as threats. All the hostiles in this film are humans. All the violence we see occurs in space, not on earth. When Roy is asked if he has ever been in a war zone he mentions his three-year tour of duty at the Arctic Circle. This is not glimpsed in a flashback.
Fights inside spacecrafts end badly. Crew members die. Lone survivors take the helm and unplug their communications with earth. This happens twice in “Ad Astra.” One such incident was 29 years ago. Clifford survived. Now it is Ray. His iteration of the scenario occurs during the third leg of his odyssey. SpaceCom just received a signal from the Lima Project prompted by Roy’s outreach via secure direct laser link. Roy believed his father died long ago on his own odyssey.
Year after year Lima Project explorers gleaned no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. A mutiny of the desperately homesick was quashed by Clifford. “I disabled one section of our ship’s life support system and without doubt I did punish the innocent along with the guilty,” he admitted in an old recording secretly archived by SpaceCom.
The McBrides will eventually reunite due to unintended consequences of collateral damage to technology. Turns out the distant pulse that knocked Roy off the antennae was one in an accelerating cascade emitted by the anti-matter tech that powers the Lima spacecraft.
On his 79-day journey to the rings of Neptune, Roy sorts through memories of his father: “He promised that one day I could join him in his pursuits. That he’d come back for me. And I believed him.” Clifford McBride’s psych evaluations, if they exist, might resolve Roy’s issues: “What happened to my dad? What did he find out there? Did it break him or was he always broken?”
When Roy comes aboard the Lima Project vessel, he delivers the closest thing to a laugh line: “Hi, dad. You alone?” He is, except for the screen company of singing-and dancing characters in the 1942 black-and-white musical “Orchestra Wives.” Roy wants to bring the monomaniac home. “This is home,” corrects Clifford. “You’re talking about earth. There was never anything for me there. I never cared anything about you or your mother any of your small ideas. For 30 years… not ever once thought about home.”
“I have work to do,” Clifford says. “I have infinite work to do. I must find intelligent life.” He taped up the cover of the July 2014 issue of National Geographic Magazine that poses the question: “Is Anybody Out There?” On it he scrawled: “Yes! Yes! Yes!” The only broken thing Clifford works on is the malfunctioning anti-matter tech: “Trying to stop this god damn surge… That’s why I’m here. Got to stop it.” Roy brought aboard a nuclear bomb to stop the destructive pulses. The Lima Project itself is slated for termination by SpaceCom.
“I was anxious to explore the fact that as human beings, we’re not really meant to be in space,” states Gray in the film’s production notes. “We’re not built for that, and we’re never going to be built for that. And that is going to have a cost.”
Gray shares an anecdote about the detonation of a plutonium bomb (unofficially called “the gadget”) at the Alamogordo Army Air Base in New Mexico at 5:29:45 a.m. July 16, 1945. Theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer christened this test “Trinity” after the first line of a sonnet by John Donne: “Batter my heart, three person’d God.”
One of Oppenheimer’s colleagues had overseen the first controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University Chicago on December 2, 1942. Gray notes: “Enrico Fermi… believed there was a 90 percent chance that the southwestern part of the United States would be destroyed… They weren’t completely sure that the chain reaction wouldn’t keep continuing.” Prior to countdown the director of the U.S. Office of Censorship Trinity tipped off the Trinity scientists: ‘‘If you blow off one corner of the United States, don’t expect to keep it out of the newspapers.” Four versions of a cover-up were drafted for the press: “A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded.”
“I had become a bit annoyed with Fermi the evening before, when he suddenly offered to take wagers from his fellow scientists on whether or not the bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would merely destroy New Mexico or destroy the world,” wrote General Leslie R. Groves in “Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project.” “Afterward, I realized that his talk had served to smooth down the frayed nerves and ease the tension of the people at the base camp, and I have always thought that this was his conscious purpose.” Commentators would call Fermi’s stint as a bookie “black humor” and “clear verbal irony.” Oppenheimer lost his $10 bet the detonators would not work.
There’s no betting pool in “Ad Astra” but the script is likely indebted to Trinity for its tech detail along with its concern with the ethics of scientists.
Roy gets the bad news, the very bad news, about the unstable anti-matter power unit that motivates his voyage towards the Lima Project vessel: “Now we’re talking about a potentially unstoppable chain reaction here. Uncontrolled release of anti-matter could ultimately threaten the stability of our entire solar system. All life could be destroyed.”
“Ultimate catastrophe is very possible,” warns a SpaceCom scientist. That phrase is the same one used by Arthur Compton, a physics prof at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project. He recalls the risk posed by atomic tests in a 1959 interview with Pearl S. Buck. The exchange between two Nobel Prize winners includes: “`The earth would be vaporized,” I said. `Exactly,’ Compton said, and with what gravity! `It would be the ultimate catastrophe. Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run the chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind!’” The phrase recurs as the title of a 1975 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists when a radiation physics prof at the University of Illinois Medical Center quotes the 1959 passage, above.
Gray’s misgivings about the scientific enterprise– in both its disinterested and corporate senses– are offset by Roy’s eulogy for his father: “He captured strange and distant worlds in greater detail than ever before. They were beautiful, magnificent, full of awe and wonder. But beneath their sublime surfaces there was nothing. No love hate. No light or dark. He could only see what was not there and missed what was right in front of him.”
One who is right in front of Roy is Eve (Liv Tyler), the woman who left him. She may get relatively more screen time in the trailer than in the film, but at least she gets a chance to tell Roy: “I don’t know what we’re doing. You’re so distant.” Gray reconciles Eve’s intimate “we” with Roy’s cosmic “we” in knowing there is no one else out there in the so-called known universe: “We’re all we’ve got.”
Muted uplift can be detected in a close reading of an earlier psych evaluation juxtaposed with Roy’s very last one before the end credits roll:
“I am focused on the essential to the exclusion of all else. I will make only pragmatic decisions. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes”
“I’m steady. Calm. I slept well. No bad dreams. I’m active and engaged. I’m aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate sphere. I’m attentive. I am focused on the essential to the exclusion of all else. I am unsure of the future but I am not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me. And I will share their burdens as they share mine. I will live and love. Submit.”
One small step.