Review: Into the Black — James Gray's "Ad Astra"

Ad Astra
Astronaut Roy McBride is unflappable and known for it, out-reputed only by his own father who casts on him a shadow akin to that of the dark side of the moon. His father has been gone a long time, disappearing after a quest to Neptune in the pursuit of intelligent life took him and his crew beyond the detection of home-base. We’re introduced to the younger McBride only briefly before we see him survive a crisis when the space station he’s working on is hit by a mysterious surge of energy that sends him flying from just outside earth’s atmosphere and crashing to the ground. After a quick recovery, he’s brought into a confidential briefing where his informed that the cause of the surges—which are growing in number—is near Neptune, where the Lima mission brought his father before he lost touch with command sixteen years ago. He may still be alive. They want Roy to send him a message, having to journey to Mars to do so. He accepts the mission, hardly blinking an eye.  
Known for making intimately scaled epics, it may not surprise that James Gray’s Ad Astra retains the epic, but it’s in rendering his space odyssey as intimate as he does that makes it such an impressive achievement. Gray has always pointed to the fate that lies in the stars for his characters. There’s even a shot in The Yards (2000) that moves through a subway tunnel made to look like outer space, complete darkness broken only by sparse lights, before it opens out into the Brooklyn cityscape—in a film, I should add, that features Gustav Holst’s The Planets. In Gray’s films, characters are bound by ties to family, class, and milieu. They struggle to break free, and, more or less, fail. So maybe it’s not so strange that Ad Astra finds Brad Pitt’s McBride traverse the solar system for a paternal confrontation. 
His father, Clifford McBride, is played by Tommy Lee Jones, seen mostly in dated photographs and video messages along the way. A celebrated hero of space exploration, he left behind his child and sick wife to pursue the sublime. In this way, Ad Astra is almost a reconfiguration of Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016) told not from the perspective of the film's hero, Percy Fawcett, but from the son he leaves at home. While The Lost City of Z at times verged on being synonymous with the single-minded obsessiveness of its protagonist, AdAstra immerses us in the subjectivity of a man at once made and broken by the parent he seeks to find. The introverted Roy is not easy to know. The most we hear out loud from him are in periodic psychological evaluations he dictates to an automated recording on a tablet. The viewer’s way into his head is through a perpetual narration, but his musings only scratch the surface, guided by a clinical self-awareness that only further deflects from his depths of feeling, trauma, and veiled self-hatred. We find out his heart rate never exceeds 80 bpm, even during intense situations. As he is called upon to move through a mission that stirs up the past, he seems genuinely unphased. Sparingly used flashbacks to a wife back home, played by Liv Tyler, hint at the relationships that Roy’s own uncompromising commitment to his career have cost him, not unlike the father who abandoned him many moons away.
Inherently indebted to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gray takes considerable effort to not step on the toes of one of his favorite films. In fact, whether inadvertent or not, Ad Astra is nearly antithetical to Kubrick’s film in its refusal to allow space to take on transcendent or spiritual properties—it is merely far and unfathomable. Interestingly, Gray draws more on Heart of Darkness and therefore Apocalypse Now in structuring his narrative, creating a series of episodes as McBride navigates “up river” in which he encounters several, often violent, surprises, including a thrilling pirate ambush on the war-torn moon. These diversionary conflicts give counterweight to the film’s otherwise introverted nature, melding sci-fi adventure with its more ruminative core. Set in the near future, the film ingeniously points to without entirely drawing the events that have led to the present, and the vague hints we get are not all that surprising: environmental crisis, fighting over resources, and colonizing (and capitalizing on) the moon. Kept to the periphery, these elements nevertheless offer insight into what may close McBride, and his father, off from humanity.
I’m not sure if the moon has ever looked better, or more realistic, in a film, and Gray takes an unromantic, hazy way of presenting us the landscape of Mars. Working with Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk) for the first time, and shooting on film, they lean on practical effects as much as a sci-fi in space can allow them and the results are incredible. But it’s also the most Gray has ever studied the human face, building the entire movie around Pitt, who is stunningly restrained in a career-best performance, the subtleties of his internal questioning emerging ever more slightly throughout. While it would be unrealistic to expect Ad Astra to look like any film Gray has made before it, the particularities of his lighting, compositions, and shot choices are on display—two rhyming tracking shots of the film’s principal female characters, Tyler and Ruth Negga, as a subversive officer on Mars, as they move away from McBride, connect their shared neglect. While the film has special effects and spectacular visuals, Gray takes advantage of the abstraction of an almost exclusively subjective approach to telling the story, creating a sense of human-restricted proximity and perspective that contrasts with the great beyond just out of frame. The film eventually pits McBride against the blackness in which he eagerly delves, in a stunning image of a man swallowed by solitude.
It is here when he can no longer hide from himself, just when it may be too late to turn back. Journeying from Earth to Mars to Neptune in order to look at himself in the mirror, Roy is given an opportunity rarely provided to Gray’s characters who can never escape the consequences of their orbit and the gravitational pull of family. Against all odds, this may be as personal a film as Gray has made, and certainly the most minimal in its focus—which is fitting considering the spectacle of the stars and planets whizzing by McBride as he meets his maker are just a distraction from where he really must go. Outer space may be an unknowable abyss, but it’s the infinity of the human soul that is the most daunting, and integral, to confront.