By John Darcy
The 2019 space epic Ad Astra – directed by James Gray, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones – was described by a friend of mine, in the post-screening hush of the theater’s red-carpeted lobby, as “extremely lonely.” This is, by far, the most concise description possible.
Desolate and creeping ever onward towards the cutoff of our solar system, Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) is set in the “near future.” It centers around astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) and his mission to the suburbs of Neptune’s orbit, where his father, Clifford McBride (Jones), also an astronaut and presumed dead for some thirty years, has instead been undertaking a rogue, bleeding edge, dark-matter experiment which threatens to destroy the known universe. It is very powerful. It is also very good. Below I will post links to both the IMDb page and the best review I’ve come across so far, by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of AV Club.
If the movie sounds a little Joseph Campbell-y at this point, that’s because it is; but formula is by no means a guarantor of success. The overwhelming depth of isolation is where the movie seems to jump off the screen. Pair that with Pitt’s character, McBride Jr., who begins the story as a stoic even Seneca might describe as a bit too intense. It is, of course, during the intergalactic voyage, as the secondary characters surrounding McBride slowly whittle away, that the solitude becomes all-consuming, a spinning top on a rough wood table with no choice but to collapse on itself. This period is interlaced by the narrating voice of McBride, giving context on his own diminishing psychological state, on the emotional tolls that the endless pursuit of science and career have taken on him – and by extension, mankind – as well as his relationship with his father, the man he must travel across the stars to confront.
What is most striking about this film is not simply the cosmological cinematography, but the ways in which the gears and guts of the movie and its backdrop become, in a supremely precise way, the theme itself. It is no surprise that Ad Astra’s cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, is an artist of the highest claustrophobic-feeling quality, with such jaw-droppingly lonesome film bona fides as Let the Right One In (2008), Her (2013), Dunkirk (2017), and the other defining, journey-lightyears-to-find-oneself space opera of our time, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). And, as loneliness, solitude, and the vastness of the natural universe set against the corresponding boundlessness of our own inner universes, reign thematically supreme, it is no surprise that director James Gray was tapped for the film; his 2016 movie The Lost City of Z (based on the 2009 book by David Grann) is equally charged by classic notions of the hero’s journey to find themselves. Ad Astra becomes a perfect cinematic storm of passion projects and guiding themes, and lands its emotional punch with the force of – you guessed it – a rocket exploding from earth’s surface.
The film begins and ends with a plummet towards earth. The truths McBride Jr. must learn are extraordinarily hard-won and monumentally simple: compassion, the rejection of solipsism, the erosion of his military-grade masculinity. And while these lessons may seem as if they’re tiptoeing towards a hokey bathos, it is no small feat that the film is able to ground them in the personal, in an uncomplicated Chekhovian profoundness. It is, in short, a story about a man who does not want to continue living the way he has been living, and must learn on his harrowing journey through the universe – and a more harrowing journey through himself – how exactly he might one day come to live. As McBride puts it, “I am looking forward to the day my solitude ends.”
The cessation of loneliness: Isn’t that why we turn to stories in the first place?