James Gray’s latest film is his first foray into science fiction, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones as Roy and Clifford McBride, a father-and-son astronaut duo. We meet Roy first, and learn that his pulse rate has never gone above eighty, even during skywalks and spacewalks, making him one of the most respected astronauts in the American space program. By contrast, we only meet Clifford in the final scenes of the film, although we hear about him from the very beginning, since he was responsible for helming an experimental mission to Neptune to broadcast for intelligent life. Since embarking, Clifford has fallen out of contact, and is assumed to be dead, until a series of cosmic blasts start emanating from Neptune. These blasts, which cause havoc to technology on Earth, are accompanied by a series of video broadcasts that suggest that Clifford has gone rogue, has murdered his crew, and is determined to cause as much destruction as he can while protected by Neptune’s orbit. Roy is therefore tasked to travel to Neptune, and recover his father, in a plot structure that is quite redolent of Apocalypse Now in its earlier stages, as we move from the Earth to the Moon to Mars, before Gray makes an abrupt and astonishing about-turn in the third act.
For the most part, recent science fiction tends to domesticate outer space, or else search for ever more abstract and remote visions of outer space. Gray, however, focuses on the porosity between the Earth and outer space, as if to recover the wonder of the earliest science fiction, and its sense of being poised, precipitously, on the edge of the galaxy. While the film never leaves the bounds of the solar system, it recovers the scale of the solar system, partly through images that recall some of the original and most canonical shots of outer space. In one of the earliest scenes, one of the characters observes that “the Big Blue Marble…never ceases to amaze me,” and that same sense of wonder percolates throughout the film, making it amazingly attuned to the earliest moments of the space age.
Yet Ad Astra is not a nostalgic or regressive exercise in the manner of, say, First Man. Nor is it a view of the cosmic future either, since the genius of Gray’s vision is to present the universe in an early state of colonization, providing a remarkably compelling vision of how our experience of outer space might look in several hundred years time. While outer space here is not exactly domesticated, and certainly not entirely colonized, it is much more continuous with Earth, making the surface of the Earth feel like a part of outer space, which, of course, it is. In Gray’s vision, the Earth is inextricably a part of space – or is space – making the spaces between people and objects on Earth feel continuous with the great galactic spaces of the universe as a whole. In the few scenes that occur “on” Earth, Gray opts for curvaceous shots that collapse any clear threshold between land and sky, while tending to avoid point-of-view shots through the astronaut helmet when we do reach the galaxy, instead focusing on images as they are sprawled and dispersed across the helmet’s surface.
Since the Earth and outer space are continuous, Ad Astra doesn’t traffic in the heroic thresholds between planet and universe that are often evident in other science fiction films. Throughout the film, ascents from planets and descents to planets tend to be ungainly and frantic, or subsumed into commercial space travel, or both, precluding the heroic individualism of takeoff so integral to space exploration cinema. When we first meet Roy, he is working on the International Space Antenna, a giant beacon that transmits for intelligent life, stretching from the surface of the Earth to the upper thresholds of the atmosphere. From the very outset, the threshold between Earth and space has thus been traversed without a rocket, while the first trajectory we see in the film actually comes from Roy falling back to Earth – not in a rocket, or in a rocket pod, but with a parachute that allows him to come to ground comfortably, bridging the gap between land and space without a spaceship.
This porosity between Earth and space also carries over into the way that Gray depicts technology and infrastructure. Typically, contemporary science fiction films are torn by whether to focus on futuristic or functional architecture in their depiction of space infrastructure. Since futurism often looks tacky or dated, directors often opt for a more unadorned, functional look, as if to anonymise outer space and prevent their vision seeming dated in the future. Once again, Gray avoids both these extremes, simply extending infrastructure, as we currently know it, into outer space. This is especially clear in his depiction of the Moon, which is one of the most original that I have ever seen on the big screen, both in terms of the approach to the Moon and the landscape of the Moon itself. By this point, rocket launches have been drained of all sublimity as a cinematic spectacle, so Gray opts for something uncannier – a vision of how all the amenities and experiences we associate with long-haul travel might look if they were reapplied to commercial space travel.
The surface of the Moon is even more spectacular, even though we only glimpse it. When Roy arrives at the moon, he enters through an airport, or moonport, that feels modelled on the New York Subway system, right down to the typography of the signage, and the different commercial outlets that are available, including Subway. From there, he moves past Appleby’s, Virgin Blue and other familiar brands to a contested zone on the Moon, as Gray elliptically evokes an ongoing lunar war that takes place outside the “safe” part of the Moon that has been reserved for tourism. During these scenes, the Moon feels a bit like Antarctica – part of our world, yet also not really a part of our world – as Gray suggests an entire fictional universe that is tantalizingly underdeveloped, and that seems to demand an entire story – or even an entire sequence and body of stories – on its own terms. This sense of the narrative richness of outer space makes a real contrast to recent science fiction, which has either sought to expand stories that already exist, such as in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels, or else depicted outer space as inimical to narrative as we know it, as in High Life.
This narrative richness continues as Roy makes the commute to Mars – the last outpost of commercial flight in the solar system. While the trip to the Moon takes a few hours, the trip to Mars takes nineteen days, forcing Gray to reimagine long-haul travel once again. This time, the familiar accoutrements – meals, pillows, entertainment – are supplemented by mood stabilisers, psych evaluations, and sleeping pods, while the Mars airport is considerably gritter and more “regional” in comparison to the Moon’s urbane, cosmopolitan style. While any online forum will point out the problems with physics in Gray’s film, there’s a different kind of realism to the way he captures the infrastructure and atmosphere of commercial space travel in this way. In the Mars scenes, in particular, he achieves an uncanny science fiction aesthetic that once depended on aliens, time travel or transhuman experiences, but which now depends on simply witnessing terrestrial transportation models reimagined in outer space. In fact, the only time the film really hints at an alien experience comes with a transportation mistake that has drastic consequences in a gravity-free environment, even though it might be benign, or more manageable, if it occurred on Earth.
Ad Astra therefore enters a different phase when Roy hitches a ride on a rocket from Mars to Neptune, since this takes him beyond the reaches of commercial space travel, moving the film into a more conventional exploratory mode. Much of the first part of the film is driven by Roy’s inner monologues about his father, and his own masculinity, but these come to the fore between Mars and Neptune, paving the way for a father-son drama when he arrives at Clliford’s ship. White male angst is de rigeur for space exploration drama, and Ad Astra is no exception in this respect, especially in its earlier stages, when Roy’s passage seems to be facilitated largely by non-white characters, culminating with Helen Lantos, played by Ruth Negga, his last point of contact on Mars. Helen was born on Mars and has spent her whole life there, but her life has also been shattered by Clifford’s cosmic blasts, which killed her entire family. This produces a weird moment of recognition when Roy first meets Helen – part awe, part fear – as the lights shut down around her, plunging them both into a stylised blackness. Watching it, I thought of “Space Program,” the first track on the most recent album by A Tribe Called Quest, which reminds us “there ain’t no space program for n—as.”
Yet Ad Astra is perhaps more eloquent than most space exploration films in acknowledging white angst as one of its overarching themes. While many of the scenes subsist on angsty voiceovers from Roy, these tend to be quite impressionistic – more like a musical refrain or motif than a narrative device – and often feel more like Roy speaking into the void, or Gray contouring the void that Roy is speaking into. From the beginning of the film, too, Gray undercuts the heroic takeoff moments that normally assuage white angst in space exploration cinema. We don’t see an exploratory takeoff until the flight from Mars to Neptune, and even this is handled in a muted and qualified way. This scene features one of the most sublime images in the film, following Roy as he swims through an underground lake to break into the bottom of the rocket. Yet this swimming scene also dissociates and abstracts Roy from the normal iconography of takeoff, reworking his compulsion to remake the takeoff in his own image into a destructive impulse that ends up killing the entire crew.
However, this scepticism about the white angst of space travel culminates when we meet Clifford, who turns out to be monstrous for precisely the reasons that Roy venerated him. Antisocial, solipsistic and nihilistic, Clifford’s search for intelligent life is really just the search for some form of life that is commensurate to his own self-image. In his first conversations with Roy, it’s clear that he has no interest in bridging the gap between Earth and intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, since he didn’t care about Earth to begin with: “There was never anything for me there – I never cared for you, your mother or any of your small ideas.” Since he hasn’t been able to find intelligent life, he’s turned his privilege and narcissism back upon himself, killing all the crew members, and allowing the ship to descend into desuetude, before blasting the Earth with cosmic rays harvested from Neptune’s rings.
In other words, Clifford is effectively a white terrorist, an evolution of the shooter, destroying everyone and everything from a safe distance because they don’t appreciate his vision. Whereas science fiction often involves white vanguards encountering aliens, here that white vanguardism is the alien force, meaning that Roy has to destroy a part of himself by destroying his father. While Clifford has come to believe that there is no intelligent life in the universe, all this really means in that there is no intelligent life apart from himself in the universe, as his solipsism allows him to displace the universe, or absorb the universe into his own person. Watching this final act, I wondered if the monoliths that preoccupy so much science fiction, from the Monolith of 2001 to the Tet of Oblivion, could be understood as emblems of this white finitude, and the limitation of the cosmos as a canvas for white angst.
To some extent, this depiction of Clifford is still not out of keeping with science fiction, which often features megalomaniacal displays of white power. What ultimately makes Ad Astra so original and unusual is the contrast between Clifford in the glitch footage relayed from Neptune, and Clifford when we finally meet him at Neptune. In the footage, Clifford is a fairly familiar white vanguard figure, spouting aphorisms and mystical pronouncements that almost directly quote Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Unlike Kurtz, however, who is charismatic and commanding when we meet him, Clifford is fragile and infantile, barely present as he cowers, abject and pathetic, beneath the world he has erected. Moving from Clifford’s messages to Clifford’s presence is like shifting between the bluster of a white terrorist manifesto and the fragility of the white terrorist in person, as Clifford fails to really ramify in any way, charismatically, from the moment he appears in person. As a result, the images of Clifford that float through the film seem to come from deep in the past, evoking an older period in Hollywood, and an older form of Hollywood masculinity, when Clifford’s fragility could garner a charismatic sway that it is impotent to execute in Gray’s eerie vision.
While Ad Astra has received some criticism for its final scenes, which see Roy dispose of Clifford and return home in a fairly “unscientific” way, I felt that this narrative decompression reflected Clifford’s charismatic failure. With white angst dethroned from science fiction, science fiction itself starts to crumble and deteriorate, resulting in a strangely open-ended conclusion, both tonally and narratively. When Roy finally arrives back on Earth, it doesn’t feel homely, but it also doesn’t feel alien, as occurs, say, in Gravity. Rather, it still feels as if he is in outer space, since the Earth is a part of outer space, which has been rendered even more porous by his compressed return from Neptune. Whereas an earlier kind of science fiction presented outer space as the realm of white male aspiration, Ad Astra ends in a messier space where that aspiration is now inextricable from the other voices and presences around it, just as “Earth” and “space” are no longer discrete categories. The result is a more muted and modest wonder, in which Roy decides to focus on being “aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate space,” as if jettisoning wonder itself from the claims of white male angst and aspiration, and opening it up to a broader audience – the audience Gray might just have garnered with this, his very best film.