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Ad Astra [film]

Entry updated 26 April 2021. Tagged: Film.

Film (2019). New Regency Pictures, Bona Film Group, Keep Your Head. Directed by James Gray. Written by Gray and Ethen Gross. Cast includes Loren Dean, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler. 123 minutes. Colour.

Several decades into an undated Near Future, the US Space Command sends po-faced Major Roy McBride (Pitt) to Mars on an urgent mission to attempt to communicate at long-distance with his famous father H Clifford McBride (Jones), head of the Lima Project in orbit around Neptune (see Outer Planets), which for three decades has been devoted to gaining evidence of life in the universe other than us (see SETI). Though nothing has been heard from the Lima Space Station for many years, there is evidence Clifford may still be alive, persisting in his mission, and that, possibly without his conscious agency, the enormously powerful equipment required to send messages into the galaxy has generated the Antimatter power surges (see Scientific Errors) that are currently threatening to destroy the Solar System.

Once on Mars, Roy fails to reach his father, and is refused permission to join a Neptune-bound expedition. He now learns that the Lima Project staff had attempted to return to Earth, and that Clifford, treating them as mutineers, had killed them all off (see Red Shirts). The Oedipally-challenged father-emulating Roy now hijacks the outbound Spaceship, killing its meat-puppet crew of red shirts en passant (there are no Robots in Ad Astra), and soon reaches Lima station. He finds his father alive but – as no Alien civilization has ever responded to his reach-out – in terminal despair about Homo sapiens's aloneness in the universe. Father and son have a family talk but Clifford, perhaps not over-impressed with Roy, commits suicide. Hints of wellness begin to suffuse Roy's countenance through his spacesuit visor, and returns to Earth, most of the trip sunk in a state of healing foetal slumber. He lands safely but dazed, only awakening fully at the sight of his wife awaiting him; her name is Eve (Tyler) (see Adam and Eve; Clichés; Shaggy God Story). Roy smiles at Eve. Any remaining hope for humanity would seem to rest, emblematically, on their skill as Gardeners.

Ad Astra, a film whose central narrative is very nearly eventless, does all the same echo its many models, though without being able to add much novelty (except for one central thing) to the long array of topoi, both Cinematic and written, to which it renders homage. Films clocked here include the inescapable 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as well as The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and the nonfantastic Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola; plus several more recent releases including Space Cowboys (2000), Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), the Television drama The Expanse (2015-current) [entry in preparation]. Literary models would include Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (1899; 1902), for the quest by Spaceship up the dark river of vacuum into intimate concourse with a grotesque father figure whose prig interlocutor bores him to death; and Lewis Carroll's Alice books, particularly Alice in Wonderland (1865), for the surreally morphing of the physics and literal geography of the universe to accord with the churning inner state of protagonist Roy. This is all a heavy load to carry, and at points Ad Astra, which is after all at heart a rather intimate father-son chamber drama, clearly gives too much lip-service to its extrovert predecessors. But it is not that simple. Even on a first viewing, something catches the eye. More than the case with any of its predecessors, the lip-service action intervals that punctuate Ad Astra are dominated by spacesuits. Indeed, in its various uses of the spacesuit as an engine to give body to actions set in vacuum, and in its various metaphorical if fleeting visions of the spacesuit as a glass to see Wonderland through, Ad Astra is perhaps the ultimate Spacesuit Film.

In most Spacesuit Films, a spacesuit is mostly what it seems to be: a non-metaphorical hollow airtight carapace featly shaped to encompass the contours of the warrior within, so that he (there are no spacesuited females in Ad Astra) can survive and manoeuvre in space; it may also be armoured to defend him (see Mecha). This use of the spacesuit dominates the surface story of Ad Astra, a film whose essential narrative arc consists (as noted above) of a trip from Earth to Neptune, a father and son talk, and a return to Earth. Everything else is extraneous. The discourse of Ad Astra, in other words, has almost nothing to show for itself. There is no film there. Whether or not its makers were aware of this from the first may not matter, though various delays in bringing the project to fruition may suggest a succession of pennies dropping. It certainly explains the action sequences – in each of which the CGI is impeccable and at points enthralling – that churn the surface of Ad Astra.

Spacesuits are the engines of the action from the very beginning. After an array of senatorial surtitles clearly evocative of the Star Wars franchise, Captain Roy McBride is seen doing routine maintenance on a vast communications satellite in Earth orbit, when a mysterious power surge (from Neptune) spectacularly demolishes the Big Dumb Object. Roy, who is so locked into his Dad-emulating career and his infarcted self that his heartbeat never exceeds 80 per minute, falls to Earth safely, in his spacesuit. U S SpaceCom now sends him to Mars to attempt to communicate with his father, as messages won't reach all the way from Earth (?). His father's old colleague, the savvy cynical avuncular Colonel Pruitt (Sutherland), joins him on a safe Virgin Atlantic commercial flight (the product placement forbids disaster) to the Moon base, which Roy describes as being

"covered up by drink stands and t-shirt vendors. Just a recreation of what we're running from on Earth. We are world-eaters."

But they must leave mall-world. A convoy of Moon buggies must transport them to the SpaceCom spaceport, across No Man's Land, which is boring. They are therefore attacked by Moon Pirates in buggies, who before they are repulsed kill off several flummoxed Red Shirts; still alive in their spacesuits, Pruitt and Roy reach the spaceport, where the aged supererogatory Pruitt is carted off to hospital, never to be seen again (Donald Sutherland's role serves mainly as a shout-out to Space Cowboys, which featured both him and Tommy Lee Jones). Roy then joins the Spaceship Cepheus for the flight to Mars, which is boring. The crew is therefore forced to respond to an emergency signal from a station engaged in bioresearch. Once inside the station, they are attacked by maddened baboons, with the loss of more red shirts, but Roy (after killing the animals) survives, in his spacesuit.

Once at Mars base, whose coulisses and corridors seem to grow and shrink like Alice's Underground world, a frustrated Roy learns from the civilian Facility Director Helen Lantos (Negga) about his father's termination of the Lima Project staff; having lost his affectlessness, he now fails the latest of his psychological assessments, and is refused passage on the Cepheus, now bound for Neptune under orders to kill Clifford. Lantos shows Roy how to get aboard the ship by going down a rabbit-hole, in his spacesuit, into a vast underground lake which extends below the takeoff gantry (the kilometres-deep permafrost of the real Mars has no place in Wonderland). Once there, he clambers up the outside of the Cepheus while it is blasting off, in his spacesuit. He then forces his way inside where (as noted earlier) he terminates red shirts, as his Dad did, in his spacesuit.

Seventy-nine days later he is orbiting Neptune, though a l;anding-dock malfunction forces him to remain for some time in his spacesuit. But soon he and his father converse, neither of them at this point in spacesuits; it is clear in this scene that Tommy Lee Jones is wearing the gear he wore in Space Cowboys, when the universe still called us forth. But now, as he tells his son, the universe is nada. "No love or hate. No light or dark." But Roy, despite his growing pains, has no time for unmanly nihilism, and tries to persuade Clifford to evacuate the station, already doomed to destruction by the deadly balonium that is threatening life everywhere. En route back to the Cepheus, in their spacesuits Clifford tricks him, and drifts off into dark vacuum to die, as alone as Homo sapiens always was. Very subtly, Brad Pitt's face begins to look reborn; the slow altering of Roy's face from the botox craquelure of a frozen-boy mask to human gaze is masterfully accomplished. The universe outside the spacesuit duly submits: metaphorically huger than planets, Roy now uses a flat piece of debris to protect him from the rings of Neptune, while returning to the Cepheus in his spacesuit. Aided by the great explosion that demolishes the station, he returns to Earth (see again Adam and Eve). As his shuttle lands safely in the green hills of the home planet, he awakens aborning in his spacesuit, with a face about to smile, in elated and perhaps deliberate contrast to the central movement of The Man Who Fell to Earth, whose protagonist (David Bowie) also wears a frozen face that melts.

This might seem enough about the spacesuit as amnion. But because they do embody kinetic transactions between the outside and the inside of the universe, it is entirely natural in a film like Ad Astra, which is all about acting out the coming-of-age of a fossilized self, that they should serve as conduits for meaningfulness to adhere to. Again and again, therefore, Roy is seen psychically hyperventilating through his visor as he experiences the Inner Space consequences of beginning to grow up, while a Wonderland universe fluctuates outside the suit.

This spiralling between the in and the out – a movement well designed to exemplify the kind of distress and flux felt by human beings attempting to make something of the time they have as mortals – has an effect rather similar to the rhetorical figure known as hendiadys, where two separate terms, joined by "and", copulate between terms in solitude and what they grow to mean as they join: phrases like "the morn and liquid dew of youth", "the book and volume of my brain", "the power and the glory". It is a device much used by William Shakespeare around 1600, as per these examples, when he was deeply concerned in the staging of change: hendiadys being an ideal device to express how words can mean themselves, and also mean something next. It is a device well designed, therefore, to register and in a sense to spin the enormous stress felt by a character like Hamlet (or Roy) straining to transact a shifting world, to escape the lockdown of adolescence, to come of age vis a vis the father. A spacesuit, conceived as enacting a movement from outside to in, from inside to out, and back again to some new inside, is a kind of hendiadys.

But Ad Astra, despite Brad Pitt's skill, literalizes all too heavily the cod and cartoonish grammars of human growth, conveying a sleigh-of-hand glibness, chez Hollywood, to the process. It may be for this reason that the makers of Ad Astra, attempting to authenticate visions of profundity that must have seemed to them constantly to sound like wellness ads, constructed the extraordinarily complicated pattern of "truth-telling" voice-overs Roy utters from various perspectives in time and story throughout the entire film. Sometimes we overhear his oral depositions to a SpaceCom assessment device, presumably an AI, which assesses his fitness to continue his mission; sometimes we listen to the pre-scripted messages he sends to his father from Mars; sometimes he seems to be speaking from nowhere in particular to no one we can quite identify; but mostly we find ourselves giving audience to hindsight passages spoken in a calm musing raconteur voice, as though Roy were reminiscing about significant events that can now safely be passed on to an unseen listener who does not speak back. It is the voice of Charles Marlow, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (1899; 1902), describing in hindsight, to listeners in a Club Story frame, his voyage up the Congo in search of Kurz and the Horror there. It is Horror recollected in something like tranquillity. It may also make sense of the very end of Ad Astra, when the very title, which means "to the stars", proves to be a dream of passage and progress as dead now as Clifford.

So Marlow's tale about the end of civilization is indeed the end of Ad Astra. The universe is null and void. Earth is our only refuge. Roy has seen Eve, or is about to see her. He makes a final deposition to the unseen SpaceCom surveillance auditor device, telling the auditor, and us, and himself, what it means to grow up on Earth now that he has become, as Shakespeare might have put it, "th'expectancy and rose of the state"; what it means to cultivate your Garden at the End of the World:

"I'm steady, calm. I slept well, no bad dreams. I am active and engaged. I'm aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate sphere. I'm attentive. I am focused on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I'm unsure of the future but I'm not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will love and I will love."

He then adds a final word. "Submit." [JC]


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