Ad Astra: A Mesmerizing Journey Into Space, Loneliness, and Masculinity [Spoilers]
Note: I was going to combine Hustlers and Ad Astra but Ad Astra proved to be much too heavy and extraordinary to be relegated to a combo-review. Before I get to that, I just want to say Hustlers is a decent film with Jennifer Lopez at her best. It has Scorcese-like tracking shots: the opening scene of the film brings you into the strip club just as Henry Hill brings you into Copacabana in Goodfellas before reality hits hard; then another following Lopez as she walks down the street to Lorde’s “Royals” until she gets arrested is just so cool. Hustlers is a wildly entertaining film with an electric female cast, a bacchanal story of crime and friendship, and a rough look at American greed. “Everybody’s hustling. This whole country is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance,” Lopez’s Ramona says at the film’s end. While the movie could have done a little more to hold up that metaphor, it’s still just as suggestive as the pole dancing that preceded it.
Ad Astra: “He was the first man to the outer solar system. He was a pioneer. But there was much more to him than that,” says Major Roy McBride in Ad Astra. He might as well be referring to the movie itself. While Nolan’s amazing Interstellar touched down on distant fatherhood, it only stayed on the surface, focused on exploring other things. Ad Astra goes deeper into the exploration of distant dads and masculinity, revolving around it like the Earth revolves around the sun.
McBride, a very subdued Brad Pitt, is a stoic, emotionally damaged, and angry astronaut all thanks to his father Clifford McBride, a Neptune orbiter (Tommy Lee Jones in a distant role mainly through video messages) who believes he is destined to find life beyond. He’s been brushing the asteroids of Neptune’s ring for 16 years thanks to the Lima Project, an expedition initially launched to find other life in the universe; instead, due to the vastless void of space, they find insanity, and not one disparate life form or soul. Clifford McBride lives on, or so the Space Command (I guess NASA falls apart in the future) thinks, as a mysterious surge of energy is coming from Neptune, threatening human life on Earth, Mars, and the Moon. Roy isn’t so certain about the fate of his father, just like he isn’t so certain about many other things when it comes to his father. He thinks his father is dead or he wants to believe he is dead so there’s no possibility of confronting him. But Roy McBride is a practical man, all business and no emotion. All focus and no feeling. All space and no ground. He’d rather do his work on the giant SpaceCom antennas rising unfathomably high into the atmosphere just before the gate to the dark void. He is loyal to the mission, no matter what it is, even when death is teasing to end him in the most unique ways. His active heartbeat is consistently at 80 BPM even in the tensest of situations. He runs on determination rather than adrenaline, heightening him to a relaxed state in dire, uneasy moments. His preternatural abilities, as well as the fact that he is Clifford McBride’s son, make him the best man for the mission to Neptune.
“I am feeling good, ready to do my job to the best of my abilities,” Roy states in the movie (I know him being like this is the point but seriously even though it’s Brad Pitt’s face, put this guy at a party and you’d get the Holden Ford treatment; he’s a compelling character for this movie only, so straight and acerbic but damn do you root for him). That’s all he’s ever ready to do. His father abandoning him and humanity to search for other life has left a sour, indelible mark on him, leaving him to face it by abandoning humanity in basically the same way, connecting only to his work and the stars. “At least it’s comfortable up here. Space I understand,” he says.
“It’s all a performance... my eye is always on the exit.” His relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler, yes her talent deserves more than what she gets here, but the movie isn’t about that) is failing, but even a long fall from the SpaceCom antenna can’t make him look at his life and change his ways. It only proves his worth as the best candidate for the mission to save or stop his father. After accepting the mission without hesitation, McBride meets his father’s old friend Thomas Pruitt played by legend Donald Sutherland and they fly commercial to the moon.
The moon is where we get the most of this futuristic world, the rest is approached scarcely and even when we get a glimpse of this new society on the moon, McBride’s voiceover is all criticism, echoing his father’s sentiments on the ignoble ascendancy of humanity beyond Earth. Seeing Virgin Atlantic and riding on the subway on the moon is one of the many things in the movie that could be casted away as ridiculous, but ultimately it works. Especially when a lunar chase sequence makes for one of the coolest action sequences ever seen on screen. The conflict on Earth has reached the borderless Moon and McBride and Pruitt barely escape a group of lunar pirates; there’s crashing and space pistols and a spinning descent into a dark crater. Finally, he reaches the dark side of the moon where he has to leave Pruitt to tend to his failing heart. McBride joins a crew to Mars and things really escalate but it’s better to experience the suspense than talk about it (watch out for that Mayday distress call).
On Mars, he meets Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga, want to see more of her? See Loving and her incredible performance in it), Director of Operations in the subterranean base, untouched by the surge. She helps him to sneak onto the ship to Neptune after he is deemed unable to complete the mission due to his emotional connection to his father. Which, in all honesty, it’s a fair assessment because McBride’s recorded message to his father is a doozy and Brad Pitt is the only person that could have acted the hell out of this scene. “Hey dad. I recall we use to watch black and white movies, musicals were your favorite. You tutored me in math. You instilled in me a strong work ethic. Work before play as you always said… I’ve dedicated my life to the exploration of space.” It’s the first instance of vulnerability we see from McBride and he still fights it. Pitt plays this so well and any man can relate. The camera lingers on him, an ingenious decision director James Gray makes throughout the movie, not only because Pitt is a good-looking superstar but because he carries this movie. In every frame he inhabits, his loneliness, his emotional repression, his anger, his straight-laced, calm attitude inside of him is felt. We need to see him and study him just as the camera does. When is this guy going to burst? Is he going to break like his father? Is he his father? Roy can only hope not and he needs to go to Neptune to deal with his father and find out. Only then can he go on living in despairing solitude or finally let go and learn to live and love.
Lantos helps him sneak onto the ship and when things take another turn for the worse, he finds himself alone on the long expedition to Neptune. A moving montage of recycled shots and McBride talking to himself makes up for the journey, intense loneliness takes its toll on the soul. When McBride reaches Lima in the orbit of Neptune, his voiceover sounds his fear of confronting his dad even in the outer reaches of the solar system, a place where no father and son have been together before.
He finds Clifford McBride, alone and destined to complete his mission. Roy takes on a boyish look, crying at the sight of his father, his inflection just a little higher, another testament to Brad Pitt’s amazing performance (Nominate him for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, give him the Oscar for Ad Astra, Brad Pitt forever). Roy tries to save his father but Clifford isn’t ready to leave, nor will he ever be. To leave would fail, give up on finding life elsewhere. “But dad, you didn’t fail. Now we know. We’re all we’ve got.” It’s a dagger for Clifford, the disappointment so evident on his face (Tommy Lee Jones is killer in his few minutes of screen time). He’s always missed what was right in front of him as Roys says.
I’ll spare the details of the wonderful ending. Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) is a beautiful, profound film. When a movie like this comes out in a time like this, it should be welcomed with wide open arms and celebrated. Even if its depth is too much for you, what’s not to like about this film? Only in movies can you fly commercial to the moon, hitch a ride to Mars, and find your dad in Neptune’s orbit for two hours and even in the epicness of that, you can relate to the protagonist. You can find yourself in space, holding in your emotions, and hiding from the world. Maybe that’s why you’re seeing this movie in the first place. It’s the only place where you can escape, be in the dark and in another world (or space) and another story. But as Ad Astra is saying (especially for men), it’s alright to let go, find what’s holding you back and making you run and let it go so that you can live and love, connect and communicate with others and feel things, work to live and not live to work. “I set aside the anger and find more pain,” Roys says at one point. What can we do to set aside both? Luckily, you don’t have to fly to Neptune alone to find out. We’re all on our own little journey to Neptune, trying to let go and move on. Trying to live. We’re all we’ve got. You can always look to the stars in awe (which people should do more often) and of course dream of going to space if you want to be an astronaut, but also make sure to enjoy the fact that we’re here on Earth, living and loving.