Tuesday January 07, 2020
Movie Review: Ad Astra (2019)
You know those pretty women in Terrence Malick movies that run ahead of the camera and look back and laugh? The ones that represent something just out of reach? Well, they’re well-rounded characters compared to Liv Tyler in “Ad Astra.”
She plays Eve (of course), the ex-wife of our lead, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s the son of a famous astronaut. What does she do in the film? Let’s see: She sends her hubby, or ex, somber video messages. She semi-haunts his memories while he’s in space, then shows up in the final frame for reunion and possible redemption. That’s her role. She represents where he’s gone wrong and how he might be saved. As for what she does/likes/is? Please.
At one point, in one of those draggy selfie videos, she says, “I have my own life, I’m my own person, and I can’t just wait for you.” Actually: You don’t, you’re not, you can. And you do.
A little Conrad
I wanted to like “Ad Astra” even though I’ve never been a huge fan of James Gray’s movies (“The Immigrant,” “The Lost City of Z”). And I did like it. Pitt is so underrated as an actor; he conveys so much with so little. And I liked the movie’s somber, thrumming tone. I liked its seriousness. It wants to be a great movie. According to IMDb, Gray described his movie thus:
If you got “Apocalypse Now” and “2001” in a giant mash-up and you put a little Conrad in there.
Wow, that’s reaching high. That’s reaching as high as an International Space Antennae.
But how bad is it that I want to correct even this quote? A little Conrad? Isn’t there already enough Conrad in “Apocalypse Now”? How about a little “Contact”: the search for the parent in the stars? That’s more like it. Plus “Apocalypse” is John Milius’ bag about man descending into savagery, his true state, while Gray wants to upend our heroic tropes. He wants to reveal the sad, gnawing emptiness at the heart of the strong, silent type. He wants to create a better model.
But yes, the tone is all “2001,” while the journey is right out of “Apocalypse”: the half-dead man sent on a mission to discover what happened to the great man at the end of the river. In this case, the great man is also his father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), sent decades ago to the other side of Neptune to head up the Lima Project—our search for intelligent life in the universe. Like Col. Kurtz, he may have gone mad. Unlike Col. Kurtz, it’s more than just PR to bring him back/down. Clifford may be sending anti-matter surges that could destroy all life on Earth, while Roy’s mission isn’t to “terminate the Colonel’s command,” as in “Apocalypse”; he’s being used by SPACECOM (basically NASA) to draw out his father so others can (one imagines) do the deed.
First the journey upriver. Roy starts it with Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old friend of his father, and they fly commercial to the moon. I like this bit:
Roy: Can I have a blanket and pillow?
Flight attendant: Certainly. That'll be $125.
Unlike in “Apocalypse,” he keeps losing and gaining partners. He and Pruitt are attacked by pirates on the dark side of the moon—a great chase scene—and Pruitt’s heart isn’t up to it. Roy then takes the spaceship Cepheus to Mars, but en route, and over Roy’s objections, they investigate a Norwegian research lab, which has put out a distress call. It’s like investigating the Viet boat family but instead of disaster for them it’s disaster for Capt. Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz), who gets his face eaten by a lab baboon.
We get some good voiceovers from Roy. During the pirate attack: “Fighting for resources. What the hell am I doing here?” When Roy realizes the Cepheus’ second-in-command is scared: “Most of us spend our entire lives hiding.”
I also like the perfunctory psychological evaluations he has to keep taking. So near future. So now. But some of the dialogue rings false. When the mission begins, Roy tells Pruitt he thinks his father is dead. Then on the moon he suddenly says this: “My dad’s a hero. SPACECOM is trying to impugn a man who’s given his entire life to the program. I think it’s despicable.” Before, he barely seems to feel anything; now he not only feels but says all this? And to his SPACECOM handler? It felt off—like a tuba blast in the midst of a flute solo.
My biggest problem, though, is how the movie gives away early its biggest reveal—what Roy finds upriver.
At the beginning, working on the space antennae, Roy hears, “A perfect day to try to contact our distant neighbors out there in the heavens,” and I immediately thought, “How do we know we have distant neighbors in the heavens?” Later, looking over old video messages, Roy hears this from his father, “We’re about to answer the number one question: When do we find all the intelligent life out there—and we know we will,” and I immediately thought, “How do you know we will? Maybe there’s nothing.”
And that’s the answer. That’s the big reveal. It’s just us. I would’ve urged Gray away from some of this earlier chatter. You can’t push your audience into thinking the answer two hours before you give it.
That said, it leads to poignant moments:
Clifford: We need to find what science tells us is impossible. I can’t have failed.
Roy: Dad, you haven’t. Now we know. We’re all we’ve got.
Or this in voiceover:
He captured strange and distant worlds in greater detail than ever before. They were beautiful, magnificent, full of awe and wonder. But beneath their sublime surfaces, there was nothing. No love or hate. No light or dark. He could only see what was not there ... and missed what was right in front of him.
I also would’ve argued against the “trying to be a better man” thrust. Sorry, but that emotionless emptiness? That’s what makes Roy who he is. That’s why his BPM stays below 80. That’s why he’s good in a firefight, good landing a spacecraft during a surge, good at everything we’re watching the movie for. You don’t get both—but the movie wants to give us both. It’s like assuming Capt. Willard goes home to a happy ending after terminating Kurtz’s command.
Or how about a little Conrad? At the end of “Heart of Darkness,” its hero, Marlow, returns to England to give the bad news to Kurtz’s widow and winds up telling her Kurtz’s last words. No, not the real ones. Not: “The horror, the horror.” He says: “The last word he pronounced was—your name.” God, that’s good. He tells her this romantic fiction to make the horrible reality more palatable. Gray (or the studio, with its notes) is telling a romantic fiction, too—about Liv, about betterment—but to us. They want to make us Kurtz’s widow.
Shame. The movie came so close.