Ad Astra at Venezia 76: stunningly bleak cosmic trip
It shouldn’t surprise you that Ad Astra is exactly what happens if you give James Gray $85m to make a science-fiction movie. Introspective, morose, and almost entirely un-commercial, it’s an effective galactic counterpart to the director’s own Lost City of Z. That’s probably bad news, if you hadn’t already figured, for Fox, but pretty damn good news for the rest of us.
Following the 2001 template of a gradual journey to the outer reaches of our Solar System by way of Apocalypse Now’s search for the renegade Kurtz, Ad Astra is an almost entirely solo affair. Gray takes every possible opportunity to isolate our protagonist, Brad Pitt’s astronaut Roy McBride, from every other human in a galaxy that feels deliberately empty.
After the Earth is racked by a recurring mysterious event known as ‘The Surge’, McBride is contacted by his superiors who inform him that they believe his father (Tommy Lee-Jones) to be responsible. He’s shocked, principally because his father has been dead for decades, but also because he was a hero who dedicated his life to the exploratory progress of mankind. SPACECOM don’t trust Roy, but they also know that he’s probably their best chance of actually getting in contact with their rogue employee, so they send him to Mars to beam a message into the inky black infinity beyond the horizon.
At its heart, this is a film about loneliness and human connection; about how isolation, and the idea of isolation, is far more terrifying than death itself. Perhaps the fear of isolation, properly understood, and the fear of death are actually the same – Gray makes constant reference to religious doctrine as a parallel to space exploration. Just as we use God to quell the fear we have of death, so too we cling to the hope of extra-terrestrial life to tell ourselves that maybe we’re not alone after all. But these self-protective psychological mechanisms are not without their flaws – often, being close to death has a liberating effect on people; being gifted total perspective of one’s solitary place in the universe may well be the same.
As Gray does best, this is also an epic tale of family – of fathers and sons. It is about a man terrified of the very idea of weakness – of emotion or feeling – who begins to realise, without ever really thinking about it, that he is becoming his own father. That, in itself, is terrifying enough – must we eventually atone for the sins of our forebearers? The closer Roy travels to his father, the less like him he becomes; the further he travels from the Earth, the closer he drifts towards humanity. Every action and emotional response is monitored by SPACECOM until Roy (we) outshoot its reach – the effort to impress higher-ups has suppressed Roy’s self. What I am trying to say, in sum, is that although Ad Astra is set in space, almost all of its concerns and ideas are aimed directly at the Earth.
Almost entirely bleak and solemn, Ad Astra is alarmingly committed to its story and the way it wants to tell it. It is such a serious, brooding piece of work that it practically dares us to burst out laughing. It is also, in generic tonal terms, hard to describe – horror would be one way of putting it. It is an almost incomprehensibly vast and ambitious film, but paradoxically it tries as hard as possible to be intimate, introverted, withdrawn. It is far more contemplative than spectacular – like Solaris in a way, but actually nice to look at.
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography brings a wonderful elegance to the proceedings, which look honestly like they were filmed in an Olafur Elliasson exhibition. The use of yellow and blue, in particular, is an absolute marvel. Roy staggers through blankets of colour-shifting mist and swims through subterranean oceans of yellow glowing fluid; he sleeps under flickering fluorescence and launches himself through the ice-cold magenta ring of Neptune. There’s no overt ‘trip’ sequence in Ad Astra, because the whole thing is kinda the trip – odd, dreamy and surreal in ways you can’t quite explain.
As usual in a Gray film, too, the editing is impeccable. Fades reveal hidden depths, whilst jump-cuts and switches with bravura musical understandings propel us through this strange universe at unimaginable speed – Liv Tyler barely has anything to say and yet the way she’s cut into the overall mix makes her a major emotional presence in the piece.
Max Richter’s score adds a transcendent majesty to the proceedings – mixing Nils Frahm with Tangarine Dream-esque spacey synths, it’s a perfect complement to the psychedelic mayhem going on in Hoytema’s visual compositions.
Despite all that great stuff, though, what is amiss here is a script that scans a bit like Drive set in space. A lot of the dialogue, spoken in voiceover because there’s nobody around to say it to, comes off as heavily cliched: “Did space break him, or was he already broken?” jumps to mind. There’s a lot of nihilistic self-hate and noirish self-loathing (or is that really self-loving) – it’s a bit generic. That is, honestly, the only thing that keeps me from giving this thing five stars.
I can tell, writing this, that Ad Astra is going to be a controversial piece of work. Aside from its script, this is a strange, slow, and deeply idiosyncratic picture that goes to some pretty wild places in pursuit of some infinite truth – places that include lunar rover gunfights and primate attacks on Event Horizon-esque abandoned ships. I’ve seen people give it 5*, and people give it 2*, and everything in between – but, like High Life, it might also be a piece of work where a second viewing brings nuance and understanding with the material that raises it to masterpiece status. Seek it out on the biggest IMAX screen you can find.