“2001 meets Apocalypse Now” may be the preferred pitch for this self-consciously philosophical science-fiction adventure from James Gray, writer-director of such varied fare as The Yards, Two Lovers and The Lost City of Z, but “Event Horizon with interstellar overdrive” is perhaps a more accurate description.
In Paul WS Anderson’s British-made 1997 potboiler Event Horizon, a spaceship powered by a black hole disappeared on its maiden voyage to the stars, popping up years later near Neptune, having apparently gone to hell and back. In Ad Astra, it’s the ghost of the “Lima project” that haunts Neptune’s rings, after vanishing with its cataclysmic antimatter drive decades ago.
This time it’s Brad Pitt rather than Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs or Laurence Fishburne (a veteran of Apocalypse Now) on the trail of the cosmic mystery, but the essential thematic coordinates are the same – a trip into deep space in search of a lost expedition that had gazed too long into the abyss. The result is an A-list B-movie that juggles moments of breath-taking visual splendour with much on-the-nose speechifying about sins of the fathers and eternal isolation, spiced up with some action-packed silliness that entirely undercuts its more po-faced pretensions.
Just as the makers of Alien looked to Joseph Conrad when naming their spaceships Nostromo and Narcissus, so Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross use Marlow and Kurtz from Heart of Darkness as models for astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) and his pioneering father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). As leader of the Lima project, Cliff “went further than any of us”, travelling to the outskirts of the solar system before going off-grid – physically, morally, theologically. Now Roy (whose “What did he find out there?” narration might as well have been read by Martin Sheen) must follow Dad’s path into the void. Will Roy be able to find the source of the electrical “surges” that are threatening life on Earth? Or will he simply come face to face with “the horror, the horror… ”?
From its vertiginous opening sequence, in which the “steady, calm” Roy (whose pulse doesn’t break 80bpm) is knocked from a terrifyingly tall transmitter tower, Gray and Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema demonstrate their mastery of experiential film-making. Shot with widescreen majesty on 35mm, Ad Astra combines sinewy, space-bound sequences – all floating elegance and weightless wonder – with moments of shimmery inner stillness, reminiscent of Soderbergh’s undervalued Solaris remake.
There are echoes of Gravity, too, as characters find themselves whirling kinetically in the disorienting emptiness of space. And then there’s the trailer-teased encounter with a space-bound “rhesus primate” – a WTF!? episode that bizarrely reminded me that 2001’s visionary effects wiz Douglas Trumbull inherited the movie bug from his father, who rigged those freaky flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. We may be in “serious” sci-fi territory, Toto, but we can still see Kansas from here…
Like Ryan Gosling’s insular Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Pitt’s pathologically “compartmentalised” hero has an almost android-like detachment from human emotions; love, fear, empathy. Indeed, this very quality makes him ideal for a mission that would drive a normal human being to distraction. Yet whereas Gosling’s glazed stare silently suggested deep wellsprings of grief, Pitt gets to verbalise his inner torment in sub-Terrence Malick monologues, interspersed with perfume-ad footage of Liv Tyler, who seems to have wandered straight off the set of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. While First Man was an object lesson in “show, don’t tell” film-making, Ad Astra seems determined to show and tell at every opportunity, right up to the hokey coda, which rivals the knot-tying antics of Insterstellar’s all-too-neat final act.
None of which is to suggest that Ad Astra isn’t very entertaining hokum. While Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s Aniara more effectively evoked the existential horrors of being lost and alone in the universe, and Claire Denis’s High Life played the inner/outer space riff with greater oddball conviction, neither of these superior films had the spectacular, crowd-pleasing appeal of Gray’s pulpy epic. In a world in which Star Wars movies still rule the roost, it’s encouraging to find an $80m space-based movie setting its artistic sights on the stars rather than simply recycling intergalactic horse-opera cliches. Yet with its lunar pirates, interplanetary shootouts and preposterous space leaps, Ad Astra owes as much to the legacy of those old Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s as any George Lucas fantasy franchise.
An atmospheric score by Max Richter (augmented by Lorne Balfe’s “additional music”) amplifies the air of intrigue, while Jones’s saddlebag face and uber-grouchy delivery offer an effective counterpoint to Pitt’s perennially wounded star-child pout.
Source: The Guardian