CAST: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler
DIRECTED BY: James Gray
WRITTEN BY: James Gray and Ethan Gross
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
AD ASININE: A REVIEW OF AD ASTRA (2019) SANS SPOILERS
by Jim Wallace
Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the Moon, had, perhaps more than any other astronaut, what was called “the right stuff” in Tom Wolfe’s book of that title about the Space Race. (Well, the Space Race up to and including Project Mercury, anyway …) The Purdue-educated aeronautical engineer, before becoming an astronaut, was a naval aviator decorated for his 78 missions in the Korean War and a record-setting experimental research test pilot who flew rocket-powered and other supersonic aircraft. And 40 months before the Apollo 11 spaceflight that took him and Buzz Aldrin to and from the Moon, Armstrong commanded the Gemini 8 spaceflight, in which he achieved the first-ever docking between two spacecraft and which his preternatural composure during crisis and quick thinking saved from disaster when a thruster malfunction caused the craft to spin violently, causing him and the craft’s other astronaut David Scott to nearly lose consciousness.
And, as if that weren’t enough, a little more than a year before Apollo 11 Armstrong ejected—with just a split-second to spare—from the very difficult and dangerous Lunar Lander Training Vehicle he was flying and, because of a propellant leak, lost control of—only about 200 feet above the ground and just moments before it crashed in a fireball. Shortly afterward, instead of telling others about it, he simply went to his desk in the astronaut office to sort some paperwork. Fellow astronaut Alan Bean, who witnessed this, remarked to Armstrong biographer James Hansen, “He was so different from other people.” According to those who knew him, he was (for the most part) different in a good way. Astronaut Frank Borman described Armstrong—who once described himself as a “white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer”—as a “[q]uiet, perceptive, thoroughly decent [man who is a] little reserved [until you] get to know him [but then] has a very warm personality.”
And Hansen, whose biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (2005) is hyperdetailed and “warts-and-all” but still virtually a hagiography, judged, “All his life, in whatever he did, Neil personified the essential qualities and core values of a superlative human being.” But the flip side of his being modest, limelight-shunning, and disciplined was being also self-contained and emotionally guarded and distant, even with his family. And in First Man (2018), the agonizingly bland and boring movie adaptation of the book, Armstrong—as played by Ryan Gosling, who according to a “mean tweet” always looks like he’s trying to fart silently—is such a pathological tight-ass a pencil could be sharpened in his anal sphincter. So “progressive” critics condemned the movie for glorifying the “male emotional repression” needed to be manly and manful, the way men were when men were men; and Ad Astra (2019) seems as if it were based upon that (mis)interpretation.
As stated by its opening titles, the movie takes place in “[t]he near future,” a “time of both hope and conflict” in which “[h]umanity looks to the stars[, or ‘ad astra,’] for intelligent life and the promise of progress.” And its stoic protagonist, astronaut/engineer/soldier Major Roy McBride, who’s “just exceptional across the board,” makes Gosling’s stolid Armstrong look like a feckless hysteric. The anemically affable McBride (played by Brad Pitt) “[s]mile[s and] present[s] a side” but is so “walled off” from other persons he dislikes being touched by them and, self-contained and self-sufficient, prefers to be alone. And as fictional serial murderer Hannibal Lecter’s “pulse never got above 85, even when he ate [the] tongue” of a nurse he maimed, McBride’s “has never gone above 80 in [his] space walks[ and] sky walks” and doesn’t even when he plummets from the International Space Antenna which extends from Earth’s surface into its upper atmosphere.
His fall was caused by “the surge,” a “series of destructive electrical storms” coming from outer space that have “wreaked havoc across the globe,” killed tens of thousands, and seem “to be the result of some kind of antimatter reaction.” Antimatter powered the Lima Project, the first (and last) “manned expedition to the outer Solar System” which disappeared 13 years earlier; and the “uncontrolled release of antimatter” could destroy all life in the Solar System. Roy McBride happens to be the son of the commander of the Lima Project, H. Clifford McBride (played by Tommy Lee Jones), so SpaceCom (the United States Armed Forces Space Command) recruits him to try to establish contact with the legendary missing astronaut. To fulfill his mission, he must travel to the Moon, Mars, and beyond; and in parallel with his physical voyage to terminate an existential threat to humankind is his psychological voyage—the navigation of his own midlife existential crisis.
So the 45-year-old McBride, whose father left him (along with his “quite ill” mother) when he was 16 to gather and analyze data from “the knowable universe” for signs of “alien intelligence,” travels through two voids: the physical vacuum of outer space and the indifference and intrinsic meaninglessness of the universe. This space-as-existential-abyss metaphor is familiar from previous “cerebral” SF movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); and Ad Astra’s director James Gray “first described it to the press [as] ‘a mash-up of’” that classic film and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), a Vietnam War movie masterpiece about a soldier traveling upriver into Cambodia to assassinate a Special Forces colonel who’s gone both rogue and insane. But unfortunately the Campellian “hero’s journey” of Pitt’s Major McBride doesn’t have the dramatic heft, thematic depth, or mythological resonance of that of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard.
In fact, the insipid and increasingly absurd Ad Astra feels more like an art house film than a monomythic adventure with the highest physical, psychological, and philosophical stakes. Its story unfolds in a dramatic and emotional vacuum—exacerbated by Max Richter’s subdued background score—with saving all of humanity given far less importance than McBride’s getting in touch with his own humanity. His internal journey, unlike Willard’s, isn’t seamlessly intertwined with his external one but instead smothers it with the aid of voice-over narration as ridiculous and redundant as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard’s in the original theatrical release of Blade Runner (1982). With Pitt’s Missouri mumble modulated into a weary monotone, it expresses his angst, bleats about his daddy issues, excretes pearls of wisdom such as “Most of us spend our entire lives in hiding,” and even spells out for the audience the significance of certain events and the movie’s themes.
Ad Astra tells instead of shows, and what it declares is that “the right stuff” is now the wrong stuff: toxic masculinity. Director Gray, who “wanted … to conjure a kind of ’60s idea of an astronaut,” claims that because humans aren’t “meant to be in space” astronauts “have to be people who are emotionally completely shut down.” And so SpaceCom (whose emblem looks suspiciously like that of Trump’s Space Force) gives its astronauts mood stabilizers, “train[s them] to compartmentalize,” monitors their behavior and physiological indicators, and has them submit continual psychological evaluations. These psyche evals are like the “post-trauma baseline tests” Ryan Gosling’s replicant-hunting replicant has to submit to in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) to verify his work isn’t affecting him, and McBride’s at the beginning of Ad Astra is like an incantation of manliness and manfulness: “I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable to mistakes.”
According to Pitt, he and Gray “were digging at … that definition of masculinity[, having] both grown up in an era [in which they] were taught to be strong, not show weakness, [and not] be disrespected, [etc., and] there’s certainly value in that as far as entering into the world and holding your own. But there’s also a barrier that’s created,” and they “wanted to investigate the inability to connect with others, and the self-protection mechanisms one builds up that keep us from really being open.” But for Pitt, doing “a film about a man’s inability to connect with others [was] very challenging [because of his many] solo scenes.” Making the matter worse is that he, like the late Paul Newman, has an innate likeability that shines through in every role (even his trailer trash serial killer in Kalifornia (1993) and stupid, obnoxious, immature homicide detective in Se7en (1995)), and it keeps him from being completely convincing as a pathological stoic.
But Tommy Lee Jones’s notorious innate surliness is perfect for his playing the epitome of “that old regime [of masculinity that Pitt says] doesn’t work anymore.” And his baggage as an acting icon adds weight to his Commander McBride as Marlon Brando’s does to his Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, which helps because the elder McBride is presented the way Kurtz is: indirectly, via descriptions of him and old messages of his, until the “Atonement with the Father/Abyss” in the final act. He’s “the most decorated astronaut in the history of the program” and called both “a brilliant man” and a “monster.” He’s depicted in old photographs and footage of Jones as Kurtz is depicted in old photographs of Brando. And he spouts Kurtzisms such as “I am free of your moral boundaries. I have total clarity.” But despite all this, Jones’s McBride just doesn’t loom large on the dramatic horizon like or have the mysterious, dangerous, mythic presence of Brando’s Kurtz.
Furthermore, Commander McBride is more Captain Ahab than Colonel Kurtz. He went mad, not from forgoing necessary social fictions to deal truthfully with the horrors of war (and “make a friend of horror”), but from forsaking humanity for his life’s obsession. He “was the [SETI] program,” and proving the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is like proving the existence of God, for without either the human race is “all alone.” And if all humans have is each other, then the meaning of life is in “the human connection,” but manly and manful emotional repression—which the McBrides have to a superhuman degree—is inimical to this. So in Ad Astra, the “heart of darkness” isn’t innate human savagery but toxic masculinity: traditional cultural norms of manhood such as dominance, competition, self-reliance, and, of course, emotional repression. (Ostensibly Neil Armstrong wasn’t just a nerd with nerves of steel but was afflicted with John Wayne syndrome.)
And the movie suffers from not only misguided politics but also mangled physics, which deteriorate from action movie to comic book and then to cartoon levels. Neither building an antenna extending from Earth’s surface into its upper atmosphere nor putting a space telescope beyond Saturn’s orbit would enhance SETI. Matter-to-antimatter annihilation doesn’t cause chain reactions; and radiation gets weaker, not stronger, with increasing distance from its source. People wouldn’t be able to move on the low-gravity Moon as they do on Earth. Spacecraft can’t be boarded while lifting off or stop temporarily. In a vacuum, an animal wouldn’t explode from being decompressed nor would a nuclear explosion create a shock wave. Neptune is far from the edge of the heliosphere, and its high-velocity ring particles would penetrate a mere panel of metal. And spacecraft can generate orbit-changing propulsion but an EVAing astronaut pushing off one wouldn’t be able to.
All these brainless blunders are shocking, especially since experts from NASA, its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX were consulted for what was supposed to be “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie.” Apparently their expertise was used only for the stunningly credible production design by Kevin Thompson, whose lush color palette was used by director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar (2014)) and director Gray to create bold, clean, majestic compositions on 35mm film. Watching Ad Astra is like watching a series of animated Steranko paintings, and just as archetypically powerful as those fantasy illustrations are its set pieces: rocket travel, a vertigo-inducing free fall, a Moon rover chase, and zero-g close-quarters combat, first with two baboons and then with three human primates. The movie’s visual brilliance makes it mediocre on balance, but it’s a shame it doesn’t serve a better story.