Per Aspera

Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)

This is a bit spoilery in some of its gestures.

You know that you are going to be in for a bumpy ride when the near future setting epigraph to a film crossfades from a line about humanity’s future lying in the stars to the title Ad Astra, in case we can’t translate the Latin. Then the film goes into voiceover, wannabe Blade Runner, but the point of a voiceover is surely to mess with the visuals not to mesh with them. There is no point in him telling us that he is looking for a door and then showing us a door — later he tells us that he feels that he in the dark, holding onto a rope, as he is in the dark, holding on to … well, you get the idea.

Trust the audience.

He is Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), astronaut, estranged boyfriend, able to maintain a steady heartbeat in any crisis, and son of Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who had gone to Neptune to search for extraterrestrial messages but was presumed dead decades earlier. When Earth comes under attach from Anti Matter Rays, the immediate assumption is that Daddy is still alive and Junior is called upon to go to Mars to send a message saying wazzup, although you know really in your heart of hearts that he’ll end up on Neptune.

And so there are various shenanigans of having to go to the far side of the Moon via the near side, so we can have a Moon Pirate Attack, we can have an irrelevant killer ape sequence and we can have some nonsense about stowing away on a rocket, as if it’s still 1950.

To be fair, there’s some good stuff in this second act, after the nonsense of the Anti Matter Ray hitting a mile high radio telescope — there’s a cameo from Donald Sutherland, as one of Daddy’s old friends, but wisely his character develops a heart flaw (can the heart be a metaphor for the toxic masculinity the film seems to want to explore?) and he is written out. There’s the product placement of Virgin Atlantic and so forth on the Moon, showing how we despoil every brave new world, but this presumably is a debt to 2001, A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. A person of colour is wheeled on to explain the ambiguities, and that’s not the last time this happens.

Of course space is big, it’s really big, but McBride seems to get around the solar system with remarkable speed, and I suspect that a) Gray and Ethan Gross as script writers have not taken into account how long a message would take too and from Neptune (and they seem to be sending it live) and b) Neptune, Mars and Earth would be in different positions by the end of the film (hand wave ship board computer).

But apparently a Moon-Mars ship could also go to Neptune just like that.

We want to be set up for the meeting with Daddy, who presumably would be barking by then after decades alone and clearly he’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. An actor of Jones’s stature ought to be able to pull something off, but frankly this sequence is botched and has to have a flashback grafted on. Junior has to learn to be his own man, as if this were a Reaganite entertainment of the kind described by Andrew Britton back in 1987.

Pitt, to be fair, does well with a weak script, although for much of it he is on autopilot. In the 1990s he had a run of manic depressive roles — 12 Monkeys, say — but then then went into depressive mode with Se7en and Interview with the Vampire, and it is very much in that … vein. We are told of his father’s violence and his character has clearly repressed his anger, yet somehow mostly passes the psyche tests. There is one hilarious violent scene — kung fu in outer space — but mostly we are told.

And then there’s the girl — well, the woman, Eve (ho bloody hum) as played by Liv Tyler. Early in the film she leaves him, and you can hardly blame her, as she doesn’t get any dialogue. In fact, she gets no dialogue, only monologue, yet you know she’ll be back as this is an Reaganite entertainment and the newly-minted patriarch has to get him woman.

You have a feeling it can’t end well. Was it Armageddon where a violent astronaut is reunited with his ex?

[I gather the ending was bolted on, after Pitt came from from Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s yet another miscalculation.]

The other strong women are brought in for a few scenes and pass on to oblivion. Mother is barely glimpsed.

It’s all rather depressing that this is a film that could have been made at any point in the last fifty years, and ends up as a less interesting version of Star Trek: The Motionsickness. The director tells us that he wants to make the most realistic film ever about space travel. He doesn’t even get us to the stars.

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