Critic After Dark

Ad Astra
Directed by James Gray

CONSIDER THE case of James Gray. He’s never directed a box office hit (though some have made their money back, barely); he’s more of an arthouse filmmaker, with distinct obsessions and eclectic influences — kind of like Tarantino, only backed by genuine filmmaking talent and a near-zero interest in cultivating commercial appeal.

Yet he manages to command respectable budgets (not insanely large but respectable), attract interesting actors (maybe not Brad Pitt, though I’d argue this is the actor’s career best). How’s Gray doing it? More to the point, how much longer can he do it?

Consider in particular the director’s latest, Ad Astra (2019) — an $80 to $100 million production, easily Gray’s biggest ever, about Major Rory McBride’s (Pitt) epic journey not to reach the stars or to save humanity so much as to save himself. Not an ascent but descent into the inner recesses of the mind, childhood included, to confront the single most monumental figure that shaped his life, father Clifford McBride (an alarmingly desiccated Tommy Lee Jones).

Is the marketing campaign deceitful? To put it mildly — but I can’t imagine an honest strategy ever hoping to recoup that budget; best they can hope for is a strong-ish opening weekend cash grab that’ll impress the bean counters, before word gets out that this is no Star Wars, not even an Interstellar or Gravity.

Apparently the gambit worked, somewhat — the film earned $19 million on its opening weekend, a respectable if not eye-popping number. But what do I know? If I had a bead on what works in the box office — I guess truth in advertising doesn’t — I’d hold a job complete with expense account at a studio marketing division, not toil away out here on my own in the dark.

An apt metaphor I think for the film’s true nature — a First Man with a Neil Armstrong even further lost, a The Pianist set in interplanetary desolation, an Apocalypse Now where Willard’s Kurtz isn’t just his mission objective but long-lost progenitor. Critics also point out similarities to Kubrick’s 2001 (Gray apparently likes to mix-and-match film influences, entire genres) but in Kubrick’s film everyone is an insignificant ant crawling on the inward-curve edge of the vast reaches of space; Gray keeps his lonely astronaut front and center and in sharp focus.

Not crazy enough to suggest Ad Astra is superior to 2001; Kubrick’s masterwork is of a piece, a near-flawless, rigorously ironic, scientifically accurate, 100% non-digital vision of man’s true place in the universe (higher than previously speculated, but not as high as we’d like to think*).

I am crazy enough to think Gray does a better job of suggesting a man’s inner odyssey than Coppola did with his ’Nam epic. Never been a big fan of the Coppola: it’s big, it’s loud, it’s not unentertaining especially the sweeping first half (I think the director was right to think Colonel Kilgore was the dramatic and comic high point). But the picture’s swipes at white colonialism and American imperialism feel secondhand (shoehorned from Conrad) and weak (Herzog’s Aguirre the Wrath of God did a more wildly imaginative job, for a fraction of the budget). I think Gray making his Kurtz figure the protagonist’s father sharpens the Oedipal subtext, and keeping his McBride (ironic name, considering) alone for much of picture (even when with someone he seems not completely with them) makes his eventual crackup not just more convincing but inevitable.

Functioning as linking motif are the psych evals that take McBride’s psychological temperature through various points of the narrative. First time we see him he’s stone, an impassive block of a man who gives the right answers in an appropriate monotone (Bowman and Poole anyone?), the product of a lifetime of training to function as the perfect space traveler — able to withstand long periods of isolation, able to respond quickly and coolly to any emergency. His tone doesn’t change nor his pulse rate rise till he’s told of the possibility that his father’s still alive.

Which is where the film starts becoming its own creature. McBride, Jr.’s subsequent actions start to resemble to an uncomfortable degree that of McBride, Sr.’s — an isolated sensibility, willing and able to put itself beyond what human society would sanction for the sake of a mission. The billions of miles odyssey is really a man approaching a mirror, confronting his own visage, sussing out the meaning of what he sees.

As for that confrontation (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the picture!) I’ve heard the comment, not entirely unjustified, that Junior’s meeting with Senior is a letdown. It is, in terms of conventional dramatic narrative, but I submit Gray is following the dictates of his own dark heart: that Junior needs to see Senior, to apprehend the enormity of the old man’s hard and frankly insane sensibility, to realize what an enormous crushing disappointment his father has become, with death the only other door possible. “I never once thought about home,” Senior says simply, and as one impassive face looks down on another impassive face you feel these are the truest words spoken in the film — that both men know what it’s like to stand apart from the rest of humanity and simply not care. Senior makes one more plea: “You can’t let me fail boy!” Junior looks at him and says “You haven’t. Now we know.” He’s right — in any scientific experiment a negative result is as valuable as a positive, something Senior seems to have forgotten in his search for the answers he wants to hear (and something more unreceptive members of the audience seem to have overlooked in their search for the climax they want to see). And looking into this particular abyss — blacker and more awful than any he’s crossed — Junior can finally turn back and grasp the slim lifeline of his memories, make the long climb (up or down it doesn’t matter) back to humanity.

I’ll call it — one of the best I’ve seen this year. Doubt if it will be a popular choice though, in that consistent with how the film feels and what it’s trying to say: that we’re all alone.

*(Yes we are involved in the creation of a new hope in the universe — but it isn’t us, it’s a presumably more evolved form of us.)