Ruairí McCann on James Gray’s ‘Ad Astra’ (2019)
Director James Gray came out of the gate armed with a realist imperative. One dedicated not just to New York, his home, but specifically to its ‘out of the way’ neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, and the hardscrabble lives that circulate there. Yet despite having a foot in a kind of naturalism, this has never fully translated into the distance that is the house approach for so much of European art cinema. Instead he is and always has been a consummate melodramatist, aiming for direct emotional appeal by playing narrative art’s age-old bed bugs such as class, amour fou and mired father-son relationships to their full dramatic hilt.
There have been shifts in Gray’s work this decade, in which the above fundamentals, his instincts and interests, have been finding new modes to settle in. For while The Immigrant (2013) is set in New York and built with the same scrupulous detail as previous films, its turn of the 1920s setting required Gray to pull from his imagination as opposed to jerry rigging his memory. The Lost City of Z (2016) goes even further by flinging Gray out of New York altogether in its attachment to early 20th century English explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who spends his one-track mind scouring Amazonian jungle for the eponymous El Dorado. Now that venture into terra incognito has been outstripped in scale.
Gray’s newest film, Ad Astra, is a space epic cloistered in the perspective of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an officer and an astronaut in a near-future space force whose high reputation stems not only from his record but from him being his father’s son. He is the progeny of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), made legendary by his leadership of the Lima Project; a manned mission to the outer solar system tasked to find extra-terrestrial life. Whether they came to close to a discovery or not is unknown for it’s been years since contact was lost and its crew and captain declared missing, presumed dead. That is until a series of electrical surges begin to buffet earth, slaying tens of thousands, with the source being the Lima Project. Roy is tasked with finding his father — who is not only, possibly, alive but rogue — to halt this apocalypse in the making and to personally confront the neglect turned abandonment on which he has built a vocation and an identity but–as evident by flashbacks to a failed marriage and his dolorous voiceover — has left him emotionally arid.
That this is the near future — the exact vague term used in the opening epitaph — is key because operating under the remit of his hard science fiction influences (2001: A Space Odyssey to name an obvious one) Gray takes the world of Ad Astra as just a step beyond our own time. A space-age commandeered by an authority that if not explicitly corporate then is a corporate-seeming hegemony. So set against unregulated emotion are they that they brief their operatives while flanked with scrutinising observers and then follow through with frequent pill-popping and psych evaluations. They’ve also turned the moon over to privatisation in a largely off-screen scramble for resources and an on-screen facsimile of the commodification of earthbound transit, complete with familiar chain stores and tourist tack. Though well-realised, the film as a real-world critique gives the impression of a thread that Gray is interested in only pulling so far. For after the moon, there are few strong but less emphasised details that colour this deflated future to be found on Mars. The planet that, in the real world, is the object of many a fortune and states’ eye is a depressed colonial backwater in Gray’s film. Populated by disenchanted workers like Natasha Lyonne’s clerk, a chatterbox likely turned that way by the stultifying nature of bottom-rung administrative work.
Though Gray doesn’t see the solar system merely as a canvas for autocratic decay. Ad Astra is often an exceptionally beautiful film, with a discombobulating chase stroke combat on the lunar surface climaxing with a tailspin and then a taxi across the dark side of the moon. Mars itself is a sifting play of sunlight and darkness against crimson and during a giddily strange side encounter, involving responding to a stranded ship’s mayday only to be greeted by the savage absurdity inside, I found myself hypnotised by Roy and his companion’s gold visors being repetitively swallowed up by the black reflections of the airlock and hallways ahead.
In its last act, the film doubles down on it essentially being a Pitt/Roy solo effort with Pitt’s voiceover, prevalent from the beginning, becoming exponentially introspective along with the aforementioned psych evaluation scenes, or “soliquoys”, as Gray compares them to in an interview in Sight & Sound, in that like the theatrical device Roy must declare and describe his emotional state. For both his superiors and Roy, at first, they are just a matter of course. Until they become sites of self-actualisation, a vent for the despair that he had previously bottled up in order to deny that his trauma and protocol haven’t joined in paring him down to only the rudiments of an emotional life. A distilled version of Gray’s previous explorations of broken paternal relationships and self-destructive masculinity, for here it comes devoid of influences such as class, religion (almost) and even other family members. Located instead in an environment that is infinite yet in its emptiness black-box like and so where the film can firmly root itself in Roy’s perspective (both inner and outer) and capture his shifting state in close-up, often quite literally.
It is unusual for a latter day Hollywood film of this scale to dedicate so much runtime to such an endeavour: to depicting the entanglement of an internal struggle and, as result, let external narrative developments fall by the wayside. In addition, it is an almost overwhelming task for any actor to anchor such an experience and yet Brad Pitt fares remarkably, giving a minutely modulated performance of a masculine front in a cycle of being erected and then chipped away. It is evident early on, in a scene where he navigates the corridor of a space station being energetically greeted by his comrades along the way. His voiceover reveals a man not only deeply uncomfortable with outward appraisals but of any kind of social interaction at all. The voiceover lets loose lines like ‘Just don’t touch me’ from Roy’s POV, while being paired bodily with reverse shots of a practiced asserted stride of an airline pilot that is contradicted by Pitt’s sheepish, painted grin and the look of brewing anxiety that his eyes can barely hide.
Ad Astra is showing in UK cinemas 18 September 2019.