“A portrait of what it means to confront your relationship with your parents in order to liberate yourself from the fear of becoming them.”
When we first meet astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), he passes his daily psychological evaluation with flying colors – his heart rate is normal, he is sleeping well, no bad dreams. Roy is lying, and any empathetic viewer will instantly pick up on this, thanks in no small part to Pitt’s measured, taut performance that feels like it could spill over the edge at any moment. Shot mostly in close ups with the exception of a few key moments, there is little room for error, and Pitt delivers. In an environment that does not value mental health, Roy must say what the higher-ups want to hear in order to keep his job. “Performance, and look for the exit” is his motto; he compartmentalizes, he pushes everything down.
What pain is Roy pushing down exactly? For starters, he just got dumped by his wife (the unsubtly named Eve, played by Liv Tyler) because he is too distant, too preoccupied with the stars even when he’s on earth. He is terrified of becoming his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut who happily ditched a young Roy and his mother for the pursuit of life on Neptune, only to go missing years later. Not to mention, he lives in a capitalist hellscape where there is constant war raging over territory on the Moon and the government puts profit over people. Thousands of people are dying every day because of a world power surge crisis with seemingly no rational explanation. This is Roy’s frame of mind when he is specifically called by the government to go on a special mission to Mars in order to solve the power surge crisis, only to find that he was not tapped for his talents but because they suspect his father might be involved.
Death, loss, and loneliness are written within the fabric of the film’s gorgeous yet sometimes brutally terrifying cinematography. Predictability is not. At times, the intense claustrophobia of the close ups causes so much anxiety in the viewer that all you want is for the scope to open up, but once it does, the scope is so wide that you’ll get lost in the endless void and be wishing for the close ups again. The symmetry, depth and awe of the photography bring 2001: A Space Odyssey to mind, but the dread of the vast unknown found in the pulsing, techno score is all Alien. It is easily one of the most beautiful films of the year.
One of the film’s weaker points is the waste of Liv Tyler’s talent: save for a couple voicemails she left before the break-up, her character does not have any lines. The film occasionally falls into the cliché of the my-wife-left-flashback; she flutters around in bed, surrounded by white sheets, she leaves with an unceremonious clink of the keys hitting the counter…and that’s pretty much it. It is tough to believe in Roy’s redemption through this relationship when this is all we see of his other half.
Ad Astra is a father/son drama first and a science fiction adventure film second. Roy sees a lot of himself in his father, yet he cannot recognize himself at all. He loves his father, yet he hates him at the same time. He is afraid that he is destined to repeat the mistakes of his father, with no opportunity for change. Who among us cannot relate to some version of this story? Who among us does not long to scream into the void of endless space when Earth can feel so unwelcoming and cruel? Stripped down, Ad Astra is an intimate portrait of what it means to confront your complex, troubled relationship with your parents in order to liberate yourself from the fear of becoming them, in turn, giving yourself the freedom to rediscover the utter beauty of the fragile relationships you share with others and with yourself.
However, if stories about confronting your intergenerational trauma while you save humanity in the endless void of space aren’t your cup of tea, then you should at least check out this film for the award worthy, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Natasha Lyonne cameo.
Dir: James Gray
Prod: Brad Pitt, Sophie Mas, James Gray, Marc Butan, Dede Gardner
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland
Release Date: 2019
Available at: US and UK Cinemas (September 20th 2019)