'Ad Astra' Review: We're All Going Down

While walking home from Ad Astra, I felt compelled to listen to Laurie Anderson’s seminal album Big Science. Anderson’s early-eighties dystopia drips with pessimism and forms a great lens to explore director James Gray’s (The Immigrant, Lost City of Z) latest film. The two feel of a piece in their despondency in the face of a clanging march of scientific ‘progress’ under military control. Both reflect on the situation with varying degrees of irony that mask the loneliness writhing underneath. They are both at once ungainly, oft abrasive, yet profoundly emotional works. While Laurie Anderson was painting a portrait of apocalyptic nightmares in Reagan’s America, Ad Astra appears to reflect on the current crisis faced by a younger generation coming to terms with the impending violence of climate change they have inherited from their parents.

The film opens on a radio tower in space shown piercing the stratosphere and stretching back down to earth. This groundedness is a pervasive theme; instead of focusing on the awe of space, the opening almost calls back to Jack Nicholson working an oil rig in Five Easy Pieces, a character similar to the one Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) inhabits. In Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson’s character finds escape from the world of his family in the oil fields until he is eventually forced back to confront his dying father. McBride has to face his father similarly, but in Ad Astra, there’s an attached burden of being commissioned to help hunt him down like Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.

The journey that follows is somber with periodic eruptions of violence which sometimes feel out of place and sometimes feel in sync with the world being created. Some of the tonal shifts don’t particularly work. In particular, the humor designed to add levity frequently falls flat in a movie so brooding and somber. The world Gray builds is lathered in a weary drabness. Unlike, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where there was a semblance of sumptuous luxury to space travel, here these elements are subdued or depleted altogether.

McBride’s father, played by Tommy Lee Jones channeling some of that Kurtz-Brando energy, has gone rogue and the younger McBride must travel on a covert assignment to stop him from destroying all life in the solar system. Like Apocalypse Now, the whole film builds to this final confrontation. The MCU assembly-line may have made world-ending stakes feel tired and commonplace, but Ad Astra is confident in sidelining the end of life as we know it for a smaller scope. McBride isn’t as much concerned with saving the world as he is in confronting his old man.

This calls to mind several parallels and implications, most immediate of these is the inter-generational conflict that feels feverishly of the moment. Today, as I write this, was the day of the Global Climate Strike where youth across the world marched as a rebuke to an older generation for refusing to do something to save the damn world. Keeping this moment in mind imbues the final confrontation with an additional heft and power. 

The older McBride would rather go down with the ship than admit fault or reverse course. This path is made that much easier by being so far removed from the devastation. Climate Change is killing people here and now, but since its most extreme and brutal effects are seen predominantly on impoverished populations in the Global South, and the corporate power responsible is seated in the Global North the distance between the two might as well be Neptune. 

Back in Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, one of its most enduring tracks: ‘O Superman’, is a conversation with a robotic voice that serves as both a parent and as a stand-in for the American military-industrial complex. “So hold me, Mom,’ Anderson sings ‘in your long arms, in your automatic arms, your electronic arms…your petrochemical arms.Ad Astra, presents a similar dynamic, as McBride yearns for the father figure he lost, but in truth his father’s mechanical devotion to the mission at any cost, as well as the arrogance that underpins it precludes any possibility of reconciliation, comfort, or humanity. 

In moving towards this finale Ad Astra may often trip and stumble as some of the tonal shifts feel particularly out of place, and the final moments come off a bit hackneyed. However, the underpinning ideas are meaty enough to matter and Pitt’s subtle performance buoyed by his charisma counterposed to Tommy Lee Jones channeling an aggressive No Country for Old Men mode, make for an invigorating experience. The film sticks with you regardless of whether you throw on Laurie Anderson or Elton John’s Rocket Man on your way home from the theater.

Laurie Anderson. Big Science. Warner Bros, 1982.

The Ten Best Films of 2020​

With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.