When your movie’s goal is to make the audience feel alienated, don’t be surprised when they can’t connect with it.
Yesterday I saw James Gray’s Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt, a film that’s been favorably reviewed by critics but, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes, has not been as well liked by audiences. Scrolling through those audience reviews, the most common complaint, though not the only one by far, is that the movie was boring and too slowly paced. This critique is not one that I agree with; I was actively engaged in thinking about the film the whole way through, and there were multiple action set pieces well placed to keep the stakes and tension high. There are also complaints about the lack of realism in certain scientific aspects, but I don’t know enough to evaluate it on that level.
However, there are certain aspects that I agree with the audience reviews on. For one, the CGI is beautiful, and impressive to the extent I only caught myself thinking, “wow, I can’t believe nearly every location in the movie was animated in a computer” after the fact. While I’m being positive, the soundtrack was great; the cinematography was pretty good, often emphasizing the protagonist’s sense of isolation; and no one performance from the actors stood out to me as bad.
The other main aspect which I agreed with RT’s audience reviewers on, which is what I’ll be focusing on for the rest of this review, is that the story felt underdeveloped. From here on, there will be spoilers, so if you’d like to experience the film blind in the future, here’s where you’ll want to stop scrolling.
The main message of the movie is that we should not forsake connections with people for scientific progress; that we should prioritize the present over the future. The protagonist’s father, H. Clifford McBride (played by Tommy Lee Jones), is the main example of what happens when you don’t heed that moral. He is so obsessed with the idea of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life that he not only neglects his wife and son for his work, but when the expedition he’s on, the Lima Project, fails to find evidence of life on any of the many distant planets it gathers data from, he refuses to give up. The crew, yearning to return home, eventually mutiny, and McBride deals with it by killing them all. He is left orbiting Neptune with no companionship for the next sixteen years, with everyone on Earth presuming him dead.
Flash forward to the “near future”, and his son, Roy, is on a mission to Mars to send a communication to the Lima craft, which has begun sending out antimatter rays that are devastating both the Earth and humanity’s space bases. The film spends most of its runtime delving into Roy’s mental state, often through very on the nose first-person narration. It’s evident from how the movie starts, with Roy remaining almost perfectly calm as he tumbles from a satellite through Earth’s atmosphere, that he has learned to compartmentalize and suppress his emotions – in fact, he literally spells this out for the audience later in a moment of reflection after fighting off some rabid space monkeys (don’t ask, they’re there and then they never come up again). He speaks of focusing only on the essentials during his routine pysch test, the audio accompanied by a shot of him drinking coffee in the kitchen on one side of the frame, with his wife standing in the middle of the frame but out of focus. On the flight to Mars, he leaves the crew to have fun in 0 G while he watches a secret government video on the other side of the door.
Both McBrides are isolated. Every companion Roy has on his journey either gets left behind or killed. And it’s all in the pursuit of one goal. Roy is so focused on his mission, so convinced that he has to be the one to face to his father, that he not only tries to convince the captain on the trip to Mars to ignore a mayday signal from another craft (though in hindsight doing so would have saved them from the Space Monkeys), but when the crew is set to be sent to Neptune without him, he breaks onboard, leading to a violent struggle (despite his efforts to keep the situation from escalating) that only he survives. This leads to my favorite sequence from the movie, where Roy has to endure the 80 day flight to Neptune alone, with nothing to do but “eat”, watch old recordings of his wife and father, and sleep.
When father and son finally come face to face, both men determined and narrow-minded to a fault, both workaholics who let their marriages rot, both murderers, both having endured intense isolation far from Earth, the question becomes: what makes them different, other than time?
This question is most clearly answered at the emotional climax of the film. Having planted bombs on the Lima to destroy the antimatter engine, Roy tries to bring his father back with him to his craft. However, McBride senior fights back, eventually forcing Roy to let him go (get it? get it? the movie wants you to get it) by unclipping his tether and letting himself drift off into space. Why? Because McBride has no interest in Earth, in any of its features or its inhabitants; why care about such things when the possibility of life on other worlds exists?
In contrast, Roy not only appreciates Earth after his isolation in space, but is desperate to return to it. And once he does, we see him reconnect with his wife in a moment that parallels the scene from the beginning of the movie where he says he’s always focused on the essentials. This time, she’s the one in focus.
Now, why does Roy still care about Earth when his father does not? Why does the former still miss his wife when the latter outright says he didn’t care about his wife or son? What kept Roy from fully becoming McBride?
That’s a question the film never sufficiently answers.
The movie doesn’t show Roy choosing to quit being an astronaut after everything he’s been through – in fact, its final shot is him taking yet another psych test in his spacesuit. And there’s no indication that the “near future” Earth has become a danger-free utopia in comparison to space.
We never see what Roy likes about Earth. We don’t get to see Roy appreciating his home before he gets sent off. He only laments about missing the natural beauty of the planet after the fact. Meanwhile, the film’s gorgeous CGI makes a spectacle out of the solar system, while nearly every obstacle Roy faces is the result of humanity: pirates on the moon hunting for resources; the monkeys that were experimented on; even the power surges themselves are caused by the Lima. In addition, when Roy is on the Moon, he resents how the ever-extending hand of capitalism has turned it into a kitchy tourist hub.
As discussed prior, the movie goes to great lengths to make you feel Roy’s isolation. However, the focus on Roy’s narrow perspective causes most other aspects of the film’s narrative to suffer. His initial companion on the mission, a former friend of his father’s, grew on me quickly, but gets dropped from the story right before Roy heads to Mars, having been incapacitated by a heart attack. Almost every character who gets introduced in between then and Neptune is just a cardboard cutout there to fill the roll of crew member, obvious fodder, or villain. Roy’s wife, Eve, comes up four times in the movie, and only speaks one of those times, in a recorded message. She tells Roy, “I’m my own person; I can’t just wait for you.” What kind of person is she? The movie doesn’t tell us a single thing.
In alienating the audience from all but one of its characters, Ad Astra alienates the viewers from the film itself. And when it uses its setting, the thing which likely drew in most of those audience members, as both the stage for and manifestation of that alienation, without offering much to connect with in return, it leads to a foundational dissonance that’s difficult to ignore:
“…when space is your metaphor for isolation, the ultimate message of your space movie is ‘space bad.'”– Ian Danskin, @InnuendoStudios on twitter1
Now the problem isn’t simply that Ad Astra uses space as a metaphor for isolation to send the message that it (isolation) is bad (though it certainly isn’t that groundbreaking of a moral). The problem is that a) the movie is hypocritically exploiting the spectacle of space the whole way through, and b) it’s so focused on driving home the isolation = bad idea that it never shows us how people = good. In fact, the film contradicts the second half part of its message by having pretty much all of Roy’s problems be caused by people. And when the negative angle isn’t properly balanced out by the positive angle, the movie as a whole ends up feeling anti-space exploration.
The thing is, I think there’s a relatively small addition the film could have made which would have fleshed out the people = good side of the message and given viewers more of a reason to care, without diminishing the negative affects of isolation the audience feels vicariously through Roy.
On Mars, Roy meets a woman named Helen Lantos (played by Ruth Negga) who was born on the planet and serves as the Facility Director. Their first proper interaction occurs after Roy gets told he will be sent back to Earth. She informs him in private that the crew that brought him to Mars will soon go to the Lima Project without him to destroy it; she is also the one who reveals that his father killed his crewmates on the Lima, two of whom were her parents. Roy and Helen agree that he has to be there to confront his father, and so she helps him get to the rocket launch site, despite admitting that it will get her in trouble.
Like most of the other characters and events that Roy encounters on his road trip to Neptune (remember the Space Monkeys?), we never get a follow-up on what happens to Helen, and we don’t get to really know her as a person before he leaves her behind. But what if, in a different version of the movie, we did get to know her? What if she had visited Roy a few times in his solitary “comfort room”, at first just being friendly in the hopes it would make him more cooperative, but slowly forming a genuine bond with him? What if we got glimpses of flashbacks while the two of them talked about what they love about Earth, with Roy filling Helen in on all the things she didn’t experience during her one childhood visit to the planet?
I’m not saying the film would have to spend a long time developing this character, even a little montage would have gone a long way. Imagine if we got to see Roy letting his walls down for the first time, rediscovering the joy of true human companionship… only to have to leave her behind. Imagine how much more crushing the isolation of the ensuing 80 days would have been.
I think by just doing this (and, if it’s not asking too much, giving us at least a little information on what kind of person Eve is, what about her Roy misses), Ad Astra‘s message would have felt much less one-sided. Going to such great lengths to show us that space/isolation is bad, but then being too lazy to show us how much better Earth/human connection is by comparison, feels like a big waste to me. Plus, having another actually fleshed out character for Brad Pitt to play off of probably would have helped keep those audience members who found the movie boring, invested.
There are a couple of smaller gripes I had with the movie that I could go on to discuss, like its inclusion of religious faith as a very underdeveloped theme, but I’ve already typed a lot more than I planned to. This film certainly made me think, I’ll give it that. I just wish its writers had given it a little more thought themselves.