‘Ad Astra’: Space Epic Spectacle Meets Grim Revisionism

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Misleading marketing isn’t a new concept, and it quickly became a tiresome subject to discuss long before It Comes at Night disappointed a sizable portion of the few people who showed up for it. The film’s initial trailer may have latched upon the title’s simplicity to tease a more conventional ominous presence the protagonists sheltered themselves from when in reality ‘It’ was an abstract idea and thematic concern, but it’s hard not to notice some retrospective irony surrounding the context. Up until its release in mid-2017, it was the widest release to date by any film premiering under A24, whose stature as sharp-eyed financiers and distributors of unique films and stories by bold, often younger visionaries had steadily risen enough to become reflexively symbolic of quality artistic filmmaking in the face of a Hollywood market increasingly saturated by homogenized blockbusters and tentpoles — even though they’d put out their fair share of duds.

Surely not everyone who took a chance on it would have been attuned to that, yet audiences for a large part castigated it and stayed away, bemoaning studio trickery and complaining that nothing of consequence happened. Yes, it might be occasionally frustrating to be sold one thing and receive another, but it’s funny that some who laud(ed) A24 for its cult of auteurism might have also summarily disregarded Trey Edward Schults’s film without considering the effectiveness of what he and his fellow filmmakers attempted to achieve independent of its advertising, as if their complaints were about a matter of principle. Much less, it seemed some even failed to consider the equal possibility that such a widespread practice indeed isn’t malicious (usually) and is often employed by studios who know that a certain film’s idiosyncrasies may have an adverse effect on revenue.

I hesitate to allow this section of minor contextual detail even a modicum of focus, as if attention supplies credence to the thousands of insolent voices who dive bomb user ratings simply because a certain film wasn’t the same old conventional trough slop they’re used to guzzling, and yet James Gray’s space epic Ad Astra leaves me wondering the same boring question of deception, as if such were of equal importance to theme, subtext and overall execution in the act of appraisal. I’d felt positive immediately afterwards that it was one of the most enjoyably strange films to ever be mis-marketed, but the more I skim through its advertisements the less I’m sure. The necessary brevity of television spots ensures that certain money shots and moments of popcorn spectacle primarily, if unintentionally emphasize a particular image the viewer ought to anticipate, but its longer trailers indicate something perhaps more contemplative, striking a balance between the action and introspection that often accompanies movies like this.

And yet, Ad Astra is hardly even that, leaning firmly in the latter direction with Grey’s stately approach preferring an unwaveringly grounded vibe and attempt at the usual existential questions surrounding similar science fiction yarns, as well as some new and, honestly, humbly provocative inquiries. The essence of spectacle may surely abound in the infrequent set piece, Kevin Thompson’s production design, Hoyte van Hoytema’s interchangeably intimate and sweeping visuals and the intensely felt emotions undoubtedly driving the plot and Brad Pitt’s compelling performance (to a degree), with the former three justifying the film’s relatively lofty $100 million price tag, and yet an essence — especially regarding the action — is all they’re ever allowed or required to be. Far from a means to an end, Ad Astra’s esoteric spectacle, often evocative of 2001: A Space Odyssey (because of course it is), represents additional texture to an encompassing aesthetic that wants to provoke less wonder at the unknown and more numbness from the crushing banality we’ve imposed upon it.

What remains in this near-future setting of heavens-high international space antennae and a colonized Moon with airport fast food joints is an insatiable thirst for discovery and rendering the unknown familiar. By the time the narrative reaches the Mars SpaceCom base that feels more like a prison of squalor than a government funded site, not only can you sense when humanity became disinterested in the profundity of this possibility, you begin to see where the attentions of those wanting more Brad Pitt laser gun buggie battles with Moon pirates might’ve trailed off. Ad Astra was never a film for them, and like many artistically-driven films, even those with a budget, its myriad of peculiarities ensured it was really only ever a film specifically for a selective open-minded few whether they enjoyed what proceeds or not. Those who stick with its vision may find an enthralling, if occasionally perplexing experience one might superficially, if somewhat justifiably call “Apocalypse Now in space,” or maybe even quibble over its ponderous navel-gazing, but both sides will nonetheless discover a hardly unfocused, perhaps even stubborn sense of ambition from Grey and his no-doubt equally passionate behind-the-scenes compatriots.

Ad Astra is, one could oddly say, endearingly myopic, funneling a deeply personal character drama of melancholic vacancy through the awe-inspiring lens of space exploration, matched with a visual approach often finding the intimate and downright lonely in the expansive. Grey and Co., however, aren’t much intent on leaving us wonder-struck (van Hoytema’s camerawork begs to differ, admittedly). It is a film addressing the complexities of particular dichotomous relationships, whose vastness of environment clashes with timeless questions that certainly aren’t small, yet intentionally never feel so large as to match the overall scope and scale. In particular, it uses the narrative’s complicated absentee father-son dynamic between Pitt’s withdrawn Roy McBride and Tommy Lee Jones’s missing space cowboy Clifford McBride to examine the nature of legacy, specifically of the enterprising men our cultures have long valorized, how we perpetuate their oftentimes artificial mythos and the singularly male desires associated with incessant ambition and the alienation it engenders.

The demonstrative success of these contemplations through a near-threadbare narrative and measured sense of pacing, especially after the film’s midpoint and which will no doubt leave some impatient, remains partial proof that Grey keeps himself within his comfort zone; his last project The Lost City of Z frequently evoked similar ideas about ambition above all else. In many ways, this film feels like its own rebuttal to its predecessor, indeed a reversal from the micro pessimism and macro optimism on which Lost City ended. Our romanticizing has its pitfalls, especially when predominant cultural narrative maintenance chooses raw symbolic power at the expense of thorny facts. Not to mention when the luster of adventurous ideals fades to the tune of Moon pirate laser guns and a space shuttle taking off from Mars, and our innocently childlike feelings of fantasy are torn from us, we still need, perhaps even depend upon a lingering sense of mythic weight we can wrap our hope and heartstrings around in order to perpetuate a dying sense of wonder.

It’s a profound level of clear-eyed, yet subdued cynicism that never hinders our investment in a story that seemingly cannot promise to end with a bright side alternative perspective on a macro level, serving as an effective backdrop for Roy’s own emotional growth as he realizes what he’s lost and what is left to gain in the face of institutionalized and circumstantially-influenced pragmatism. It takes him many moons to reach this self-awareness, however, as he keeps himself emotionally closed off, focused on any given objective to a fault. He makes his countenance immediately explicit through reticent, sometimes quippy spoken dialogue disguising his distance as well as voice-over inner monologue that, as the narrative and subsequent editing veers into stranger, almost hallucinatory territory, is never as totally revealing as it is during the film’s opening stages. In fact, Grey and co-writer Ethan Gross use his development as a unique means of maintaining dramatic tension when, as many will no doubt complain, nothing happens. As Roy verges closer to his father, his heightening withdrawal climaxes until their reconnection subconsciously reinforces a realization that, like the sputtering anti-matter inciting the plot (the metaphor will no doubt seem obvious), such a state isn’t sustainable.

Consequently, the further the narrative progresses, the less we feel inclined to attach ourselves to Roy’s predicament, as if Ad Astra encourages us to detach ourselves from him, his quest and perspective, especially as the plot introduces greater moral ambiguity that’ll leave some flirting with Apocalypse Now comparisons, among other, more concrete reasons. We feel our gradual distancing from Roy partially through corresponding set and lighting designs that become increasingly alien to human comprehension in addition to a steadily removed directorial approach to greater capture the inherent isolation, and given Roy’s destination by the closing shots and inner monologue, it’s an appropriate measure. But the tangibility of Pitt’s steely performance, in numerous respects reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s recent turn in Blade Runner 2049 (especially in emotional arc), assures detachment, whether on our or Grey and Co.’s part, need not translate into disengagement. He retains our sympathy if not our complete trust, and it’s a level of performance surprisingly capable of supporting exponential complexity the more it feels one-note, if purposefully so.

It’s additionally a performance whose greater implicit weight is difficult to ignore when contextualized by an overarching, fictionalized world, especially an occupational world that has long reinforced Roy’s disconnection from humanity, that continues past the plot’s resolution without dissolution or reform — one of those sci-fi settings. The hierarchical structures that discredit emotional attachment, instill almost religious reverence (I recommend reading Alissa Wilkinson’s Vox review for expanded thoughts on that detail) for questionable, globally symbolic father figures like Clifford and apparently haven’t found the time to effectively combat Moon scavengers continue onward, nary a screw loosened in the frame, because of course they do. Naturally, the overt signifiers of the pessimistic fantastical refitted into a quasi-realistic framework serve as intentional parallels to a modern world that continues to struggle with these issues and concepts — well, maybe not space pirates, yet. Society at large frustratingly still has a collective problem with confronting the omnipresent individuals, particularly men, disembodied as ideological idols regardless of industry.

Such doesn’t undermine Roy’s uplifting ending, though, because Grey’s tonal and thematic insistence upon a personal narrative effectively fends off secondary concerns, and rather facilitates the subtext emanating from them to buttress his primary focus. It’s thrilling technical filmmaking about a pair of emotional vacuums that doesn’t derail itself with blind devotion to the former, finding tension and emotional nuance where it feels as though there’s only a black hole. There’s an unfortunate irony to this, however. Given the quite anti-mass appeal execution of it all, most viewers who could probably stand to understand and internalize the film’s critique of unquestioningly deified cultural pioneers may by and large stay home. Conceited to think a singular work of art can change minds so suddenly, yes, but I guess the world will continue undisturbed. At least until Joker premieres.


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