A few weeks ago I found myself lamenting what a generally lackluster year we’ve had going to the movies. There have been a few outliers, but by and large 2019 hasn’t felt like a particularly strong year for movies. But, as we start to enter the fall, it appears that things are set to change pretty drastically. Because, while it was a largely awful year for summer blockbusters, it’s shaping up to end with a serious bang. It’s time to start getting the headier fare, the Oscar players, and the films that have been wowing at film festivals to finally start reaching the regular people. Looking ahead I’m legitimately excited for about a dozen films which should hopefully fill out my end of year list. And, the first entry in the coming flurry of great movies is James Gray’s Ad Astra. I’ve been a fan of Gray’s films for a few years, ever since I went to check out his film the Immigrant, largely on a lark. I was really drawn into that film’s dark story-line, gorgeous visuals, and terrific performances, and I knew that I’d have to keep an eye on anything that Gray was involved with. And, lo and behold, his next film got heralded as one of the best films of the year, Lost City of Z. I really enjoyed that movie too, cementing the idea that Gray was a film-maker to follow. So, when I learned that his next film was to be a somber sci-fi film that would essentially be retelling of Heart of Darkness in space, I knew that I was very excited. And, when I started to hear near unanimous good things about it, that feeling just kept growing. So, imagine my delight to learn that Ad Astra may be my favorite film of Gray’s yet.
Ad Astra is set in the near future, where humanity has colonized the moon and Mars, and have set their sights on the rest of the solar system. Which, reached a height sixteen years previous when the United States sent a space station known as the Lima Project out on a mission to escape the solar system and seek intelligent life in the universe. They were never heard from again, until a mysterious energy pulse caused quite a bit of devastation on Earth. Which is when Major Roy McBride is brought in. His father Clifford ran Project Lima, and the American Space Command have learned that the energy surges aren’t an accident. They appear to be coming from Neptune, and match the same energy signature as Project Lima’s equipment, making them think that Clifford has gone insane and is attacking Earth. So, as a last ditch effort, they want to send Roy to Mars, where the last functioning long-range transmitter is held, so that he can send a message to his father in the hopes of getting him to stop. Roy is unsure about the mission, but goes along with it, flying from Earth to the moon with one of Clifford’s old colleagues. The pair reach the moon and learn that they need to get to a base on the dark side of the moon, crossing hostile mining territory. They manage to get to the base, after witnessing several deaths from moon pirates, and Roy is able to leave the moon, but not without losing several military escorts along the way. And, before Roy leaves for Mars, he learns that his father purposefully destroyed the communication system of Project Lima after killing some potential mutineers.
Roy meets up with a crew heading for Mars, and they slowly make their way through space. Along the way they respond to an SOS from a research vessel, which turns out to be full of feral baboons that have killed the entire crew, and end up killing the captain of Roy’s ship. But, they still get to Mars, where Roy is able to send his message. Which, appears to get a response. But, his superiors have decided he’s not emotionally sound to encounter his father again, and refuse to let him accompany them to Neptune. But, when he learns that they actually plan on blowing up Project Lima, and his father, he decides to sneak aboard the ship heading to kill his father. And, in the process, he kills everyone on board thanks to an accident with a CO2 fire extinguisher. So, Roy flies the ship himself, spending the long journey to Neptune by himself. And, when he reaches the planet, he find Project Lima floating in orbit. Roy board the craft, finding the malfunctioning receiver that appears to be firing the energy surges, and gets ready to place the nuclear device to destroy the ship. Which is when he finds his father. It turns out that he hasn’t turned evil, and the surges are largely an accident, brought about when the final remaining crew members attempted to mutiny, resulting in their deaths. Clifford is the last remaining person aboard the ship, having killing everyone else, once they became despondent after their mission failed. They sent out their messages, and found no sign of life, and viewing that as a failure, Clifford has determined to spend the rest of his life looking. Roy attempts to convince his father to come home, but Clifford refuses and throws himself into space, leaving Roy to fly back to Earth himself, with all the data Clifford accrued in the hope that his mission wasn’t a complete failure.
Going into this film I knew that it was going to be a riff on Heart of Darkness, a premise that really does suit itself to all sorts of interpretations, but I didn’t really realize that it was specifically going to be such a riff on Apocalypse Now, down to the occasionally heavy-handed narration from Brad Pitt. And, I really think it worked well. It’s a gorgeous film, featuring some of the most impressively designed space effects I’ve ever seen, really bringing the colorful grandeur of the solar system to life, while remaining a very human story. It’s an epic tale of space adventuring, but keeps its heart and soul attached to a powerful human story about a man and his father, which weirdly is a topic that almost never fails to hit me hard. Which, I kind of don’t understand, since I’ve always considered myself to have a good relationship with my own father, but any movie with daddy issues tends to hit me insanely hard. And this movie really handles it all perfectly. It’s beautiful, it’s heart-breaking, and it’s powerful. Which, makes it that much more strange when you also think about the fact that it features an Applebee’s on the Moon, moon pirates, and a killer baboon. Those two things should be incredibly incongruous, and yet somehow this movie synthesizes sci-fi goofiness and a really touching and fascinating look at familial repression, and I love it.
It’s not exactly breaking any new ground to suggest that men sometimes have problems expressing their feelings. The stereotypes of men’s emotional states largely dictate that we’re only allowed to feel feelings of anger, anything that approaches vulnerability and sadness can be relegated to “femininity,” which is apparently something to be avoided. Which, is the world that Roy McBride has lived in. His father literally abandoned him and his mother to go on a voyage with no hope of return, and instead of every processing that abandonment and sadness, he just seems to have bottled it all down, because that was what was expected of him. By all accounts, Roy is a professional success, following in his father’s footsteps in an attempt to become what he was. And, when it becomes clear that he’s going to travel all the way to Neptune to see his father, it becomes unclear if it’s to save him and his legacy, or to show Clifford what he became, to see if he’d approve. And, he doesn’t. Clifford doesn’t really care about Roy, he’s too deadset on his mission, and his perceived failures. Which is finally the thing Roy needs to realize that he’s essentially wasted his life, attempting to be something that he thought would make his absent father proud. He ignored his entire life, repressed every impulse, and it all led to him realizing that he didn’t want to be anything like his father. He’s able to recognize that Clifford didn’t fail in his mission, but that his commitment to perfection at the expense of a full life outweighs any purpose of his mission. So, hopefully, upon returning to Earth Roy will have learned that life is for living, on your own terms, in your own way.
Ad Astra was written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, directed by James Gray, and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk