OCTOBER 20, 2019
PICTURE THIS. In the not-so-distant future, Virgin Airlines starts offering commercial flights to the Moon. As a tourist destination, the Moon provides mixed returns. Sure, you get a pretty nice view of the Earth, but territorial disputes and organized, rover-driving pirates have limited this natural satellite’s accessibility. Upon arrival, your flight attendant reminds you of these dangers and recommends that you stay within the confines of the Moon’s massive space station. The station resembles present-day airport terminals, except that the throngs of travelers and moon miners and military personnel all look Situation-Room or Rick-Owens-runway ready.
Given that near-future technology has only advanced so far, each flight to the Moon still consumes an extravagant quantity of resources. A crew of around three (pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant) transports roughly eight to 10 passengers in a small lunar lander, which is propelled into space by a massive rocket. Once the ship exits Earth’s atmosphere, its rocket boosters and jet tanks detach and fall away, maybe for unseen retrieval and reuse but likely abandoned into space as intergalactic refuse. Considering each lander’s low occupancy in relation to the teeming crowds that you will surely encounter in the space station, the whole flight operation might appear to you like a corporate boondoggle, but remember: Virgin executives have crunched the numbers and deemed the endeavor to be profitable. Economics are different now, and why not? Humanity inhabits both the Moon and Mars; nations seem to quarrel over newfound material surpluses rather than racing belatedly toward sustainability; the Norwegian space program even conducts ambitious research on monkeys somewhere between the Asteroid Belt and the Red Planet. In other words, this is a future, but not ours.
Ad Astra is not a bad movie because its vision of the future — the vision just described — is implausible, at least not exactly. All sci-fi cinema requires some suspension of disbelief, and good sci-fi makes it seem that all of its inexplicable features are so obviously explicable. (Fanboying names the passion for just such explication.) No, Ad Astra is bad because its frenzy of ridiculous details never gels into a cinematic universe worth believing in, even as its inert script demands that its viewers take it seriously.
In order to work through the film’s issues, let’s start with a reasonably good faith summary. The movie offers a chatty inversion of the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus: an unflappable astronaut named Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), sets out on a quest to recover his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who has flown too far from the Sun/son. Under the pretext of periodic psych-evals, Roy delivers plainspoken voice-overs throughout the film, which eventually lead to some dead-on-arrival platitudes about the Sins of the Father. Occasionally, the film’s script encroaches upon Skywalker territory, particularly with this clunker: “I will take care of him. I will take care of my father.”
A decorated astronaut desperate to discover the existence of life out there, H. Clifford McBride is suspected of having descended into murderous and potentially humanity-ending madness. (The dark matter fueling his exploration ship has started to interact with the planet Neptune, which is leading to catastrophic power surges throughout the human-inhabited Solar System.) Roy gets recruited by the space branch of the US military to recover his renegade father. This mission is fraught from the get-go. Roy thought that his dad was dead, and the possibility of Clifford’s survival (his now being a public threat to humanity, rather than the inimitable hero-traitor haunting Roy’s emotional life) leads to a serious reshuffling of this son’s deck of Daddy Issues. On his way to finding his father, our hero dutifully obeys the rules of Space Ops, until he learns to break them; he first saves his fellow astronauts, only to murder them inadvertently later on. In Ad Astra, laws of the father transcend laws of the state.
Stalwart Roy finally retrieves Clifford. He also downloads decades of Pop’s research for transmission back to Earth and beseeches Dad to learn the lessons stored in the data. (In the near future, digital imaging of distant planets will not have kept pace with advances in space travel.) During Clifford’s isolated sojourn in the orbit of Neptune, he found no signs of intelligent life. This means, according to Roy, at least, that We (both the human family, and more specifically the McBride nuclear family that Clifford had previously abandoned) are all that he’s got. Clifford refuses to be saved, and in letting go of Daddy, Roy realizes what really matters — home. With unbelievable pluck and the protection of some sturdy solar panels, Roy leaps from his father’s soon-to-be-destroyed spaceship through Neptune’s rings and back to his own spaceship. He then harnesses the force of a nuclear explosion to propel his journey back to Earth. Upon arrival, the (mutinous and murderous) Roy is fêted, not court marshaled. (In Ad Astra, the ends justify the means.) At the film’s close, Roy sits in a near-future coffee shop that looks a lot like present-day coffee shops, and awaits the return of his ex-wife (Liv Tyler), whom he had also abandoned in order to satisfy his Oedipalized emulations of his dad.
Of course, the plots of most genre films would sound just as hackneyed were they to be pared down so summarily, but great sci-fi pictures tend to be buoyed by an underlying spirit of adventure or suspense or, well, gravity, that makes any narrative silliness appear perfectly persuasive. As an example, let’s try comparing Ad Astra to Claire Denis’s equally ludicrous sci-fi experiment, High Life (2018). Claude Lévi-Strauss, the founding father of structural anthropology, could not have asked for a better pairing. Both Ad Astra and High Life are interstellar updates of mythic material: the myths Daedalus/Icarus and Medea, respectively. Both deal with the ethics of fatherhood, one from the perspective of the son in relation to Dad and the other from the perspective of Dad in relation to his daughter. Both deal with the limits of humanity, though one is staged at the edge of our solar system and the other at the edge of a black hole. Both establish narrative tempo through repeated signs of regulating bodily rhythm and the on-screen ingestion of mood-altering drugs. Both even include the outlandish appearance of a spaceship populated exclusively by feral animals (monkeys and dogs).
However handsomely performed, Pitt’s stoicism in Ad Astra pales in comparison to Robert Pattinson’s ex-con asceticism in High Life. Whereas Ad Astra expects its belabored psychologizing and slick camera work to convince viewers (of the Academy) that its Freud-lite Daddy Drama should automatically count as cinematic seriousness, High Life utilizes the basic parameters of the space exploration genre (space’s sublime expanse versus a spaceship’s airtight enclosure) as a formal structure to probe a realm of murkier taboos, namely infanticide and incest. Pitt plays it straight with his by-the-books overcoming of a tarnished paternal ideal, while Pattinson portrays a much more original (I’m even tempted to say queerer) archetype rarely considered on-screen: the last father figure. After the death of his rapist-spouse/ranking superior (Juliette Binoche), Pattinson’s character is left with two options: either he kills himself and his then-adolescent daughter (Jessie Ross), or he copulates with her so as to prolong humanity in their microcosmic spaceship.
Denis knows her Freud just as well as Ad Astra’s writers, James Gray and Ethan Gross, but she selects the taboo of incest over that of the same-sex rivalries of the Oedipus complex as her filmic universe’s first and final law. This choice allows for High Life to conclude with an act of properly tragic heroism. Seeing no real future out there in space stuck in their biopolitical prison-house, Pattinson and his daughter affirm their human kinship by collaboratively suiciding into the adjacent black hole. Their act is heroic because both characters clearly want to believe in the possibility of breaking through this deformity in space-time, even if they know that the chance of their survival remains infinitesimally small. Compared with Pattinson and Ross’s defiance, Pitt and Tyler’s coffeeshop reunion looks awfully ho-hum.
But perhaps this match-up of a Hollywood blockbuster with a festival-circuit film was unfair from the get-go. If, as critic Melissa Anderson has persuasively claimed, Ad Astra is really about the gravitational pull of Brad Pitt, and not that of the Sun, then the movie might still solicit pleasures detachable from its narrative forms or its genre conventions. This means, however, that Ad Astra’s true peers are not High Life or Gravity, but rather star vehicles like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again or the latest Mission: Impossible. It would be completely pointless to search for any higher meaning in either of these high-budget offerings to the cults of Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, for instance, several flotillas of fishing boats carry legions of anonymous Greek villagers and minor celebrity cast members to honor the since-deceased character that Streep had played in the first Mamma Mia! film. The leading lady appears in the sequel almost exclusively in the form of an ex-voto-style photograph resting on the mantelpiece of her on-screen daughter (Amanda Seyfried), which is to say not at all. The cast’s auto-tuned consecration of Streep eventually pays off. She is risen in the end for a fantastical ABBA-medley finale, standing side-by-side with her scene-stealing movie mother, Cher (who is, by the way, only three years older than Streep).
Ad Astra is too self-serious to allow for any such Brad-induced ecstasy. If you still want to drool over the actor’s photogenic looks and confident swagger and watch a decent film, there is always Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood. Otherwise, you actually could do worse than endure the 90-minute lead-up to Cher singing “Fernando” to Andy Garcia.