Film Review: Ad Astra

A Stunning Deconstruction of a Pulp Hero

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Sprawling in its vision and intimate in scope, director James Gray follows up The Lost City of Z with his affecting space drama, Ad Astra. Brad Pitt puts forth one of the most subdued - yet poignant - performances of his career as astronaut Roy McBride. A powerful meditation on fathers, sons, and masculinity, Ad Astra profoundly deconstructs a traditional character archetype with a deft hand. Mild spoilers ahead…

In middle school, I would drop by my local comic book shop almost every week. Nestled right next to the Chinese restaurant my family frequented, I would kill time there waiting for takeout orders with my mom. Like all the other kids in the store, I read my Spider-Man books and my Batman books, but I was also strangely transfixed by the one dusty corner of the shop that was always neglected, a corner filled with unsold reprints of pulp adventure novels. Astonishing Stories, Weird Tales, Doc Savage, John Carter of Mars, I quickly became enamored with their old-school charms and action-packed storytelling. As a scrawny, nerdy, and awkward Asian kid, there was something about these vintage Mary Sues that spoke to me, yet also stirred up feelings of inadequacy. Here were paragons of virility, unflappable monoliths of hyper-competence blasting their way through land and space, rescuing “damsels” and thrashing evil. As a teenager, it was easy to look at these chiseled heroes of yore and wonder: “What if I could be that cool? What if I could be bigger? Faster? Stronger? Emotionless in the face of fear?” In Ad Astra, an introspective character study disguised as a sweeping space epic, director James Gray dares to deconstruct the pulp hero, challenging our preconceptions of masculinity and illuminating the toxic nature of repression.

If Doc Savage is the Man of Bronze, then Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is a man of stone. Cut from the same pulp cloth as the heroes I loved to read about as a child, McBride is a clear pastiche of vintage American heroism. A real Race Bannon type, McBride battles moon pirates, wrestles with space monkeys, and infiltrates space rockets, never skipping a beat or breaking a sweat. The son of legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), Roy grew up in the shadow of his father, who abandoned his family to join the Lima Project, a classified expedition to Neptune in search of extraterrestrial life. Molded by his father’s supposed disappearance years into his journey, Roy became an astronaut himself, eventually signing up with the United States Space Command. A steely, taciturn spaceman with a heart-rate that never spikes over 80 bpm, he starts the film in the midst of one hell of a setpiece: an unknown energy surge demolishes the space station on which he resides, sending him hurtling towards the earth in a breathtaking free fall - a free fall that he survives, of course, barely rattled. As for the source of the mysterious blast? In a briefing, Roy is told that it originated from the Lima Project’s Neptune orbit, suggesting that dear old dad may not be as dead as everyone believes. From here, Ad Astra sends Roy McBride on a collision course with his father Clifford, and in turn, his own bubbling cauldron of unresolved emotions.

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“…director James Gray dares to deconstruct the pulp hero, challenging our preconceptions of masculinity and illuminating the toxic nature of repression.”

Ad Astra sees Brad Pitt at his very best. Stripped bare of the idiosyncrasies and charisma that have defined some of his most memorable characters, Pitt’s Roy McBride is perhaps his most subdued and nuanced role. While Roy can overcome his physical challenges with calm and collected ease, the closer he gets to his father, the more his expressive eyes betray the craquelure of his hardened shell. Accompanied by a mostly effective voiceover (that occasionally drifts into heavy-handedness), Roy’s journey becomes more emotionally fraught the further we progress into the film’s 122-minute runtime: he begins to fail the psychological baseline tests he used to pass with ease, tears well up in his eyes, and memories of his estranged wife (Liv Tyler) - a relationship clearly ruined by his inherited failure to be emotionally present - rise to the surface. Halfway through the film, the message is clear: while Roy’s emotionally stunted persona may have shaped him into the perfect cool-guy pulp hero, it has also transformed him into an irreparably damaged human being.

James Gray’s biggest film to date, Ad Astra is an ambitious vision that dwarfs the earthly scope of his previous directorial efforts. And while Gray’s near-future world-building consists of awe-inspiring superstructures, minimalist moonbases, and incredible technology, his portrait of what’s to come is decidedly bleak. Some elements of this world are humorous, others are shocking, but nearly all of them are damning - travel terminals on the moon are littered with Applebees’ and Subways, blankets during space transit cost $125, and the greed-fueled battle for resources transcends its earthly origins in the form of marauding pirates. The world of Ad Astra is a sparse, cold, and lonely one, stretched into the vast cosmos, and Pitt’s performance as Roy McBride only fuels the sense of isolation. Mostly a one-hander, the film gives Roy a wide berth, therefore keeping its supporting players at arm’s length - Donald Sutherland gets some fleeting screentime as a mentor figure, and Ruth Negga’s appearance amounts to little more than a glorified cameo, playing the director of a Mars facility. The stage of Ad Astra is ultimately a solitary one, a structure that mirrors Roy’s claustrophobically insular monomyth.

There will undoubtedly be a large number of science purists that will dunk on the film’s many technical inaccuracies, but if you can look past the film’s shaky astrophysics and minor plot holes, there’s a bigger message that Gray is trying to convey. And helping to convey it is cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. No stranger to space movies, Hoytema changes up the visuals considerably from his work on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, opting for a fuzzier palette while also employing striking uses of color: the dusty ochre of Mars and the hazy blues and purples of Neptune make for some of the film’s most stunning visuals. Ad Astra may explore some heady themes, but its penchant for spectacle is something else entirely, deserving to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

On the surface, Ad Astra differs greatly from James Gray’s previous works, but under the hood, it runs on an engine similar to his previous filmography: the human engine. While the film may have antimatter energy surges and shootouts on the moon, in the end, it functions at its best as a stunning deconstruction of a pulp hero. Clifford McBride abandoned his family for “the work.” Unable to face his responsibilities as a husband and father, he blasted off into space under the guise of exploring the far reaches of the galaxy, leaving his son with deep psychological fissures. Ad Astra is a plea to redefine our gender and rediscover our humanity. What if whatever clench-fisted masculinity we use to punch through the veil of the unknowable, to defeat our adversities, and to push our scientific boundaries, ultimately proves to be moot? What if, in the end, there’s nothing out there for us more than what we have now? Then this is all there is, and all we have is each other.

GRADE: A-