Since the dawn of man, the vast reaches of the cosmos up above have enamored us to the nth degree. You need only watch something like 2001 to be reminded of that fact. (There’s no doubt James Gray is well-versed in its frames.)
Herein lies a core theme throughout our very existence. We have this inherent overlap between science and spirituality — the celestial spheres and the extra-terrestrial — forming a framework for how we comprehend this world.
Aspects of this film even have a near-liturgy or the solemnity of an open-air cathedral. Dean Martin’s “Heaven Can Wait” is a hymn and a hint. Prayers are cast up to St. Christopher for the pilgrimage ahead. The dead are venerated like saintly martyrs for the cause. Because somewhere at the end of it all is the thought of some universal meaning, some ultimate truth, be it God or sentient being.
One is reminded of the proclamation the Soviet Union made when they sent their cosmonaut up into the stratosphere and came back down not having seen God. In essence, the conclusion was that this tangible world was all there is. Tools and technology are the instruments in which to make sense of the world. God, in whatever form, is only a pipe dream or a form of wish fulfillment for the weak. We must look somewhere else. Inside ourselves perhaps.
C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Seeing Eye” wrote the following response when pressed on the Soviet’s pronouncement:
“Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye.”
Watching Ad Astra (Latin for “To The Stars”) with this context uncovers profound meaning for me. It is a journeyman’s film pure and simple. Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is on a mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. He procures helping agents along the way, namely, Donald Sutherland in an enigmatic role and Ruth Negga, an operations director and Mars-native who dreams of Earth as the distant reality she once visited as a child. It brings to mind her parents, now deceased. Yet another cryptic puzzle piece.
One is led to think they do a fine job being exactly that, mysterious and understated, but it doesn’t give us much to relish as an audience. Tommy Lee Jones is a vanished American hero clouded with secrets of his own. Could it be the rumblings are true and he’s the manifestation of Kurtz in the heart of darkness on the surface of Neptune?
The question becomes not what is at the end of the universe but even more sobering, what if there’s nothing there, just the vastness and austere beauty (as Kubrick depicted, without his images of rebirth)? What are we to do then? Ad Astra‘s conclusions aren’t all that different than the Soviets all those years ago, but they are admittedly far less cynical.
While it lacks true emotional heft in crucial scenes, Gray’s endeavor is concerned with human relationship and this distinction is ever so important. Because this niche of movies can fall into two categories. 2001 spearheads those that are not altogether interested in humanity as such. It’s vast and clinical with the vision and scope Kubrick could capture immaculately. Whereas Tarkovsky’s Solaris or even more recent films like Gravity and Interstellar are far more intimate, regardless of any flaws they might engender.
James Gray is certainly skilled at developing the world planted in a so-called “near-future.” Still, as expansive as the galaxy becomes with every panorama and lens flair by Hoyte van Hoytema, so much more of the movie is borne by the features of Brad Pitt. His perspective and his thoughts. We come to understand him in physical proximity even as we are never allowed close emotional proximity.
Because Ads Astra is a pensive, solitary film. It maintains some intrigue by divulging little and stretching out its assets. It plays with some generic terrors. For instance, “The Surge” that has sent a shockwave across earth leaving many dead and without power. We have moon raiders, Gravity-like survival moments, which Pitt handles with steely aplomb, and touches of governmental conspiracy verging on the sinister.
Primates in space give another brief glimpse of 2001, Planet of The Apes, or even Alien. However, we also get the fleet-footed Nicholas Brothers, who are one of the best-kept secrets of Classic Hollywood’s musical circuit. All these are cultural references to earth, mind you, and not the outer reaches of the galaxy. This is an important observation.
Because there is an uncanny feeling that humanity has managed to shape outer space into our own image with the proliferation of Subway or DHL shipping even made available on the surface of the moon. It makes the Restaurant on The End of The Universe less of a joke and more and more of a reality.
Still, these are never the elements completely defining Ad Astra for me. They are of secondary or even tertiary importance in deference to the central character study. I am willing to give Pitt the benefit of the doubt and believe his performance to be authentic and genuine. Where his masculinity is made really and truly vulnerable. We don’t build a deep connection with him precisely because he doesn’t have a rapport with anyone. Not his wife (Liv Tyler in a minuscule role), not his father, not anyone.
We begin to assemble a blueprint of someone who has always dwelled in their father’s footsteps, resentful of being abandoned, and simultaneously driven to be the best he can be in pursuit of the same auspicious goals. There are fractures cutting through his life even as he is a figurehead of national pride and American know-how, his life continually compartmentalized into professional and personal.
In fact, Ad Astra is simultaneously an exploration of how we forge heroes and erect idols in our culture. It doesn’t actually tackle this idea to an altogether satisfying conclusion, although it’s pardonable as the film literally takes an about-face. This is how it manages to set itself apart from the pack with a final decision different than the Soviets or Lewis, Kubrick or Nolan, even Tarkovsky.
For the final key, I turn to a very mundane place. One of my favorite bands sings about “Stars” from a Descartes perspective — humanity at the center of the universe — only to turn it on its head.
Instead of us looking up into the heavens, it becomes the stars looking down at us. To recall Lewis, those who cannot find “God” on earth will hardly find them in space. And those who look for meaning, or the beauty or the love they are lacking, in the skies above will probably be disappointed.
After all, maybe our objective is not the stars at all, and it never was. They are only markers and a compass with which to reorientate ourselves amid the entropy of this lifetime, that is, existence on earth. Once oriented, we can start looking around and seeing the people orbiting around us and begin a new objective — to love and cherish one another. It’s striking Roy’s final words almost sound like wedding vows. As if he went to the stars only to realize what he had to come back to. He finally had eyes to see.