James Gray‘s Ad Astra (2019) sets its sights high, or rather far, on its thorny way to Neptune, but it seems to lack soul material, some obscure alchemical element – even with a core intent that is honourable, and a story that is conceptually beautiful in its severe simplicity.
While it unfolded, I was strangely aloof, as if flicking through the pages of a glossy magazine, with its perfect lighting of stellar surfaces, and an inner narrative that is meant to be compelling, but falls flat, the person delivering it doing his hardest to be sincere, but cannot help but perform.
And I was confused as to why I am not more engaged with a story that seems genuine, but somehow isn’t, until we finally came upon the only article of interest in this long and often mind-numbing artificial journey towards some kind of truth – all in the five minutes that Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones spend together on screen. The closed off, subdued, dutiful son finding his alienated father searching for alien intelligence – a Colonel Kurtz figure, his ego on a mission destroying and endangering anything that crosses its path.
See, Tommy Lee rips this whole edifice apart, exposing the glaring lack of realness in the rest of the film. You cannot fake energy, and Ad Astra felt distinctly self-involved, if not outright narcissistic. I felt uncomfortable till that very moment for viewing it this way, thinking I was missing something that would be obvious to everyone else. It also might have a thing or two to do with the two female roles (Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler) being bit players, not in terms of screen time, but in terms of depth. Trophies of love/wisdom to be cherished/revered, rather than actual people to be addressed.
The curious part of my experience was that I really wanted it to work for me, and it didn’t. Not because it’s a story of masculine vulnerability and ambition – First Man did it beautifully, another male stargazing film released this Moon landing celebration year. I could understand every nuance of its every frame. But maybe because Ad Astra is essentially a selfish story about selfishness. The way I felt excluded, I sometimes felt in my real life, but rarely while watching a film on screen.
The story was aimed to unpack the way we isolate and wall off from that which distracts us, or disturbs us, or hurts us, or haunts us, be it love, hate, or pain, for better or for ill. But in its attempt to open up, it does so extremely selectively, a targeted sort of kindness. A personal message that fails to reach the universal – a pricey love letter meant for a particular other, or group of others, but perhaps truly written only to oneself.
Coded seemingly transparently, branding its heart on its sleeve, it pushes aside all that does not belong in its elegant narrative.
It might be a lofty intimate goal, but it’s not art, unless we view it as a purely cinematic visual sensation, and Hoyte Van Hoytema‘s cinematography is ravishing…
Art opens its heart to everyone that needs it.
Maybe that lacking alchemical element is not obscure at all. Perhaps it’s just simple generosity. In a film that aims to deal with the consequences of selfishness, it misses the mark monumentally, excluding the only ingredient that counts.
Author: © Milana Vujkov