This contains spoilers for Ad Astra.
Near the end of Ad Astra the camera pans over screens showing exoplanets, captured for the first time in some kind of detail. The images are the kind we’re familiar with when it comes to our own outer planets – fuzzy, distant, with indistinct geographical features that require the interpretation of scientists to look like anything other than squiggly lines and discoloration. And yet over this is a Brad Pitt narration – the continuation of a film’s worth of droning Brad Pitt narration – that informs us how beautiful and amazing these images are.
This, I think, sums up a lot of what I don’t like about Ad Astra, a movie whose title is To the Stars, but which is pretty intent on telling us there’s no good reason to ever go there. It’s not that images of exoplanets are boring, it’s that the film’s imagination is limited to indistinct pictures of them on screens. Cinema can take us anywhere, and yet Ad Astra takes us to an underground Martian base that looks a lot like the service corridors beneath a football stadium. And movies can make us believe in anything, but Ad Astra asks us to believe there’s nothing.
Which isn’t to say the movie is bad, because it isn’t. And it isn’t to say that people who like Ad Astra – and there are people who love this movie – are wrong. I’m the outlier when it comes to director James Grey; I’ve admired all of his movies and liked absolutely none of them. They’re well made, handsomely mounted, intellectual, immaculately acted and every single one of them is as cold as the black space through which Brad Pitt silently sails for most of this movie. I have never had an emotional connection to any of his movies, and I think that’s because his movies are about repression and sublimation, are about people distanced from their feelings, and I am none of those things.
That repression is central to Ad Astra; Pitt plays astronaut Roy McBride, a dude whose heart rate never accelerates and who is always calm and cool. But that calmness isn’t a function of equanimity, it’s a function of repression, a repression that he inherited from his absent father. At the beginning of the movie Roy barely survives what is called a Surge, a sudden burst of power that emanates from far out in our solar system. This energy wave wreaks havoc on Earth, and new Surges keep happening (much as happened with the return of the soft drink of the same name). But this isn’t the only problem – Space Command has figured out that the Surges are being caused by a malfunctioning antimatter reactor in orbit around Neptune. And wouldn’t you know it, the antimatter reactor is what powers Roy’s dad’s supposedly lost mission.
Roy ends up on a journey to send a message to his dad, and then from there goes rogue and decides he’s going to confront his dad face to face. What follows is sort of a thematically inverted 2001: A Space Odyssey, wherein the farther Roy gets from Earth the less weird things become. Very early in the mission Roy and his crew encounter a ship broadcasting an SOS; what they find inside is that monkeys have gone nuts and killed the whole crew, and we get Brad Pitt briefly battling a space monkey (a nod to Fight Club?), none of which is explained. But as the journey gets beyond the asteroid belt and finally to Neptune the most exciting thing Roy finds is his dad in a cozy sweater, and Ad Astra turns into a slightly soggy daddy/son thing that is so underwritten that the whole thing feels like a Seinfeldian “yadda yadda yadda.”
Which is crazy, because this is the whole point of the movie, in every possible way. This is the endpoint of Roy’s journey, but most importantly it’s where all of the film’s thematic concerns come together and then immediately fizzle out. You see, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t just playing Brad Pitt’s dad, he’s playing the idea of God.
(Side note: in order to make this movie work a lot of Roy’s developmental stages had to be… elongated. See, Brad Pitt is 50something and, in the best possible way, looks it. He can’t play a man in his 30s. Yet it’s clear this movie was intended to be about a guy in his 30s; at 50 Roy feels sort of like a failure, a guy whose career never took off. On top of that, the backstory has to become one where Roy’s dad left when Roy was 16 and disappeared when Roy was 29 – way too old to have the sort of impact that these events would have had on a person a decade younger.)
See, Ad Astra is actually a movie about atheism. Roy’s dad Cliff (such cowboy names these guys have) has gone to Neptune to look beyond the solar system, to hunt for intelligent life with more delicate instruments that can see farther than ever before. And he finds nothing (by the way, I don’t think Cliff was out there even remotely long enough to even begin making a statement like this. Space, my friends, is very very very big. Maybe the local neighborhood is empty, but to say every surrounding zip code is lifeless is another matter). There are no aliens. Humanity is alone.
This has broken Cliff. When some of his crew, defeated by the existential suplex they have received, want to go home he sees it as a mutiny… and he kills the mutineers. Now Cliff is alone, circling Neptune, looking out at the stars hoping to find anything. In the early reels of the film it seems as if the anti-matter rupture may be part of some nefarious plan that Cliff has, but it turns out the whole solar system is suffering from a metaphor gone wild – just as Cliff is broken, so is the thing that is powering his journey.
But the lack of ET life goes deeper for James Gray than just having no one to phone home. Throughout the film we get small glimpses at religion, and Cliff himself talks about God in relation to his mission – out there, at the edge of the solar system, Cliff says he’s in God’s presence. But there is nothing out there, no aliens, no God, no nothing.
More than that, Cliff represents father as God, the way that little boys look up at their dads as these perfect beings. Roy has a parallel journey in that he discovers that his dad is no God, but rather a crackpot who killed his own crew and whose inaction with the broken reactor threatens literally the whole solar system. Whereas the dissolution of Cliff’s God breaks him, losing his God makes Roy stronger. He’s freed of the looming shadow of daddy and now able to become the man he always should have been. Or so we’re to understand.
See, throughout the movie Roy has these flashbacks to his ex-wife or girlfriend. Liv Tyler, at any rate. And you know the kind of flashbacks these are – she’s lying in bed, hair tousled, make-up perfect, sunlight making perfect everything it touches, and then one where she angrily leaves the house in the background of the shot – but you don’t know what kind of woman she is. That’s because she’s nothing, nobody, no character, no humanity. She’s a phantom.
You’ll read a lot about this movie tackling toxic masculinity, but the question I have to ask is: does it really? In Pitt’s occasional narrations he talks about how he has a rage in him, how he’s been not great in his life, how he treated people badly, but we never see this. The movie never bothers to dramatize this (although the Surge is clearly a metaphor for it), just as it never bothers to dramatize Roy and Cliff’s relationship. This is a movie where half the situation is told to you, explicitly, and the other half is your responsibility to fill in. And I don’t mean fill in with logic – Ad Astra asks you to fill in emotional gaps, to bring your own life and understanding to these characters and provide the mortar that goes between the bricks, that makes them stick together.
And so yeah, Roy has toxic masculinity, at least in his head. But without it ever being dramatized does it really exist? I think there’s a toxic masculinity at play in the film, with its stoic men and marginalized women. We’re meant to believe that Roy is less toxic at the end of the movie because we see him getting dinner with Liv Tyler, but what does that really mean?
What the movie is saying is that there is no God, but there is still beauty in the universe. More than that, we don’t need God to give us meaning – we can get meaning from each other. It’s real secular humanist, but like a lot of secular humanism it feels flat, empty of wonder, devoid of magic. That’s just thematically; cinematically it’s a dud, an ending that feels sort of detached from everything else that went before, a half-hearted shrug of a denouement. Because Liv Tyler isn’t a character what does it mean for Roy to get back with her? Because we never saw Cliff and Roy interact before what does it mean for Roy to literally let him go? They’re pantomime relationships, shadows on the wall suggesting shapes that aren’t there.
More than that, the ending is the ultimate refutation of the movie’s title. Why, the film says, look to the empty universe when we can find everything we need here, with other people? I’m not against this message, should it ever appear in a film where it’s articulated dramatically, but in this movie the message doesn’t land. Maybe it’s because the movie presents both options as equally distant and uninteresting – the exoplanets as indistinct images on a screen, the relationship as fragmentary impressions of a life. Maybe it’s because it presents the one guy really interested in exploring the wonder of the universe as a raving madman who killed his own crew, mutineers and loyalists alike. Or maybe it’s because the movie isn’t actually about this, until all of a sudden it is.
Ad Astra is as if 2001: A Space Odyssey were drained of all sense of wonder. Brad Pitt is HAL, killing off the crew of his own ship, mixed with Dave Bowman, coming to the place of cosmic knowing. Except what he comes to know is that there’s nothing to know – the universe is cold and sterile, and we’re alone. Where 2001 was a product of 1968, a movie that ends with the next step in the evolution of man, an extraterrestrial Age of Aquarius, Ad Astra is very much a product of 2019. The concerns of the movie are not about mankind but a man, and Roy goes to the very end of the solar system – right next to Uranus! – to deal with all his past wounds. The theme of the space race in the late 60s was “For All Mankind,” but that ethos has disappeared in the modern era.
Look, I’m the last guy to shit on taking a journey into yourself, but there’s something solipsistic about how it happens in this movie. When Roy stows away aboard the ship going to Neptune he insists that he alone can deal with his dad, a statement that makes no sense at all in the context of what we’ve seen (and even less when we see that the Surge is just an accident, and Cliff has no clue what to do about it), but that does make sense when you realize this is a movie about self-realization as narcissism. Roy comes to terms with his dad in order to get Liv Tyler back; since we don’t know what their relationship was like, what he was like (I think he ignored her?) we never get a sense of how any self-realization will impact her.
But that’s besides the point. Dave Bowman went deeply into himself, transcending space and time to experience his whole life at once, and returned to Earth fully transformed into the Starchild, bringing with his big fetus head the promise of another jumpstart for humanity. Roy returns to Earth with some data and some bad news about life in the universe. But hey, he’s ready to get dinner with Liv Tyler.