AD ASTRA (2019, James Gray)
A slow, ponderous, deadly serious drama packed with self-consciously profound voiceover and interrupted occasionally by bursts of exhilarating action and stimulating set-pieces — it seems like it shouldn’t work and shouldn’t make sense, and during the experience it kind of doesn’t. But reflecting on what’s at stake in this, and what kind of observations Gray is making about our human condition, both today and tomorrow, makes this interesting, affecting, and something I actually liked despite my hesitation to recommend it to anyone at all.
The key line is Pitt saying “We’re all we’ve got.” There’s a frightening existential truth in discovering — even after traveling 2.7 billion miles to Neptune — that there may not be any other intelligent life in the galaxy, and humanity has to rely on itself to progress. The opening crawl tells us that in the near future we look to the stars (it helpfully explains that “ad astra” is Latin for “to the stars”) to save us, but apparently that’s just mankind’s folly. When there’s no God, no aliens, and no reason to exist, then we turn inward and explore human relationships, family, and the soul. Hence Pitt’s perma-watery eyes through his space helmet (in zero gravity, tears don’t fall down your face, so those watery eyes are a scientifically accurate detail) as he contemplates what, if anything, is worth saving.
Gray proves increasingly focused on this aspect of the theme, so the other stuff feels like window dressing. You would be excused for thinking the rover chase on the moon, the baboons, and other incidents were studio-mandated entertainment to distract from the sobering philosophical hand-wringing. But while they’re brilliantly executed (Van Hoytema’s reliably gorgeous photography is on par with DUNKIRK and INTERSTELLAR), those incidents don’t seem to matter much to the story, which really wants to boil down to Pitt and Jones: a son grappling with his father’s issues. To the point where voiceover lines like “we suffer the sins of the father” are annoyingly redundant. In his best film, THE LOST CITY OF Z, Gray sent a father and his son so deep into the Amazon jungle it felt like outer space. Here, space is both literal and metaphorical, the universe is just as hostile, and all you care about coming away from it is the humanity at its core.