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Published on April 10th, 2020

Alex writes about Ad Astra.

There are many ways to delude oneself, typically with no good reason to actually believe it. You can focus on your work in order to convince yourself you’re not lonely; you can hide in a movie theatre to avoid existence; you can stare into your phone until fiction becomes fact. None of these things ever work out exactly how you hoped though, because nothing ever does. You miss out on everything else: time, money, hope, all of which compounds into negatively affecting your own future. You could accept this loss early on and get on with it all, or you could let it quietly fester within you… Or you can just go to space instead. Your call.

Ad Astra is the latest film from James Gray and – as per all of his previous films – it is very good. After an introductory action sequence on a truly gigantic antenna, featuring our hero Roy McBride escaping a mysterious technological surge, Roy is informed that those surges exist all across the world. They appear to be caused by the remnants of the Lima Project, an exploration mission lead by Roy’s father Clifford who was assumed to be dead, leading a mission that was assumed to have failed. Roy soon launches into space to find his (until now) presumed dead father – a father who left him and his mother behind years ago – in order to continue his celestial search for extra-terrestrial life forms.

A lot of things happen in the interim, as the journey passes space pirates and recording booths and Natasha Lyonne, but the viewer can always safely surmise Roy is going to make it to Neptune to see pops. (The viewer has already seen early in the film that Roy’s father is played by Tommy Lee Jones, and that cantankerous curmudgeon doesn’t sign onto a movie merely to pose for a photo in a spacesuit.) This isn’t a movie about whether or not the hero gets from Point A to Point B, it’s moreso about the zigs and zags along that path. So, of course, Roy gets to Neptune and, of course, his father Clifford is still alive hacking away at his own interplanetary quest.

Upon entering his father’s ship, Roy talks to Cliff and – in an inspired writing choice – Cliff immediately tells his son that he didn’t miss him while he was gone. Despite leaving his son when Roy was 16, living a wholly solitary existence on Neptune for years, Cliff never thought about his son once. The look on Roy’s face as this information is relayed to him conveys to the audience that he knew this the whole time. Roy simply had to hear it from the wrinkly-eyed oracle himself before he could admit it out loud.

Brad Pitt’s performance as Roy has been appropriately ballyhooed, with most of its power contained in static frames of Roy’s face, merely processing information. Perhaps Pitt’s strongest moment in the film comes right as his father Clifford is telling him that, “Hey, I never thought of you once while I was gone. Kick rocks, kid.” When we watch Roy experience this, Pitt chooses to barely move. He sheds a tear, but other than that he is essentially motionless. And yet you can see him registering the most powerful emotion of the movie on his face: “I fucking knew it.” You watch a man break not because of what his father says to him, but because of what he already knew and refused to believe. Then, and only then, can he vocalize what he knew to be the truth all along: “I know, dad.”

You can get where you’re going, you can experience what you wanted to experience, but the only thing you’ll learn is that which you were afraid of the whole time.

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Earlier today, I was bored. When I say bored, though, I mean what all of us mean when we say we’re bored in 2020: I had nothing immediately pressing to do, so I aimlessly looked at my phone while standing and waiting for my rice to cook. I did not stare off into space, as I would have ten years previous, and I did not get out my book to read due to the relatively short time I had to kill. So I scrolled. I found nothing, as I always do. And yet, I will do this again, presumably before I finish this writing session, despite the fact that I know it will break my focus in a way detrimental to the finished piece. But a Vanity Fair cover story on Joaquin Phoenix is peaking out at me from the browser tucked behind my word processor, and those meaningless photos aren’t going to scroll through themselves. He looks like he’s laughing on a couch! Must-see content!

We live a life of quietly agreeing to believe one technological snake charmer or another, about one snake oil or another. If something doesn’t fit what we’re looking for, we can rest easy knowing that we can keep looking, scrolling on by until the next thing fits our exceedingly temporary needs. The technology in our pocket has instructed us that we control everything, so if we find something we can’t control we can wall ourselves off to it until we find the next desirable thing that we can control; contrary thought need not apply, for it shall be swiftly ignored. And if we don’t find what we want, we continue our unending scroll, our search for what will satiate us in the precise way we wish to be satiated.

Do I think this world is broken? Yes. Do I believe it is unfixable? Honestly, kind of. I believe that, at some point in my lifetime, we got to a stage where everything was good enough. If we called off the search for all non-medical technological advances in 2007, we probably would have been okay. I would have been cool with stopping the day before the announcement of the first iPhone; the internet is an immensely powerful and wonderful tool, but maybe we don’t need it in our pocket at all times. (Admittedly, this point comes from a place of privilege: as somebody who has lead a comfortable, North American existence, I felt and feel we were far enough by 2007. I recognize technology has given voice to many members of the previously voiceless who actually need to be heard. In this piece, I suppose, the views on technology apply to me and people living existences similar to mine.)

People have been bitching about technological advances made in their lifetime since the dawn of time. Everybody misses how things used to be, even though “the way things used to be” is a relative experience. Cave painters would have probably complained about society’s introduction of the paintbrush had they lived long enough to see the day. In 1845, Henry David Thoreau famously eschewed society entirely, making his own world on Walden pond so he could focus on his writing. Over a century later, Ted Kaczinsky took a more aggressive, exploding-mail sort of approach towards eschewing society from a cabin in the woods. I am not going to retreat from society; I am too deeply entrenched (and I also kind of think Thoreau was a defeatist, let alone my thoughts on Kaczinsky’s repulsive actions). I’m going to stay here, and I’m going to worry that I made the wrong decisions on how to spend my time today, yesterday, and tomorrow, and I justify continuing to do this by saying everybody else around me is doing the same thing. As you can see, because you are reading this.

Now, my stance on modernity is (obviously) hypocritical. This website exists as the stepchild of a blog that was founded in 2009, after I had read enough opinions online to think mine were thoughtful enough to publish. Our podcast, where we recently discussed Ad Astra, exists because of the continued growth of what is now called content. I heard enough voices talking about movies, and I thought James and I could do better, in an at least semi-unique way. Did we succeed? I don’t know. But we tried, which means I have contributed to the surge (albeit a surge that strikes back quietly, and at a smaller scale, but constantly). Now I suppose I’m trying to figure out how to shield myself from its repercussions.

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In Ad Astra, Roy puts on his helmet and blocks out the world. It’s present the first time we see him onscreen, and it’s present the first time he interacts with a human being. He keeps a shield between him and others (albeit often out of intergalactic necessity). Early in the film, working on the biggest satellite the world has ever seen, Roy crashes back to earth after the action scene that introduces us to the surge. His parachute ripped, he hit the ground hard, and then people came to pick him up. In this instance, Roy needs help. But as soon as those people enter his sightline, the scene blacks out. We don’t see any interaction between Roy and this crew of unknown people sent to help him out.

After this, as discussed above, Roy goes through a lot of shit. Interplanetary travel and whatnot, not to mention being told by his father that he is unloved. But the key thing of what Roy learned is explained to us in a voiceover about his father, a man whose glaucoma can no longer allow him to see very far in front of him. In a piece of voiceover, Roy breaks down all that Clifford found, all the beautiful nothingness of these planets. They looked gorgeous and were impressive discoveries, but there was nothing there other than surficial beauty. Clifford didn’t find the beings he knew and still believes are out there, which is why he wants to keep looking. Roy knows this is foolish – he has discovered that there is nothing to discover, and Roy can accept what Clifford can’t. As he says to his son, pleading to stay on the ship: “I have infinite work to do.” Roy knows now that, at some point, it’s time to give up. To revisit the hackiest moment in the film, sometimes you have to let go of something gnawing at you, as Clifford says to his son in the father’s final moments on screen.

After a bunch of survival excitement, Roy gets back to earth, his pod crash landing in what feels like a slightly more relaxed callback to his fall from the antenna earlier in the film. This time, however, Roy needs somebody to pull him out. His legs won’t work after living so much time in zero gravity, so if only out of necessity he needs to give himself over, and the scene doesn’t black out as soon as the rescue crew arrives. Roy raises his visor to reveal his comically well-groomed space travel beard, and he raises his hand. Somebody he has never met before grabs it, pulling him away from a technological advancement and into his own, uncertain future. The camera tracks down to reveal the seat of his craft, unoccupied yet still in focus, as Roy moves off into the blurry, unknown future all the while in the hands of others.

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There’s a short epilogue after this, of course, a scene of Roy sitting alone in a café, sipping a lonesome latte as he awaits his long lost paramour Eve to come meet him. Now, there are a million reasons to not like this sequence, all of which hit me immediately. Below are a quick sample of said ideas:

  1. Ugh. We have been given no reason to believe Eve would go back to Roy.
  2. Okay well that last word choice was actually pretty strong.
  3. This doesn’t seem like an ending James Gray would write.

It turns out that, well, James Gray didn’t really want to write it. At the behest of the moneymen, Gray came to the compromise of adding a way-too-cute button to his otherwise wordless and eloquent ending. It’s a cinematic tale as old as time: formerly beautiful ending and the capitalistic beast. In discussing the conclusion of Ad Astra, both Gray and his star (who is also a producer on the film and therefore a part of these endless meetings and email chains), have been eloquent on the matter.

Brad Pitt, in the LA Times: “I don’t see it as a change, I see it as evolved. […] From the beginning when we started with the script, the basic structure was there, the architecture of ‘we’re going to go to the moon, then we’re going to go to Mars and then we’re going to go to Neptune.’ But so much of it has constantly been in flux, I don’t see that as change. I see that as a natural part of its growth.”

James Gray, in Dazed Digital: “That last 40 seconds was very much a collaboration and a compromise. […] But I was OK with it, because if the movie felt like a downer, I was going to get very upset. The point of the movie isn’t that he goes to Neptune, confronts his father, and then becomes a miserable guy. The degree to which that was clear to the audience, I was OK with it. And besides, my ending is in the movie (before those 40 seconds).”

As has been much discussed, Ad Astra is a grander movie than Gray has ever attempted to make before, both visually and financially. Depending on what figures you’re looking at – I am of the mind that any figure I can find is probably wrong, but at least indicative of scale – Ad Astra came in at a budget three to four times higher than The Lost City of Z, and in order to convince money people that their faith is properly placed, sometimes you have to make some concessions to get all the money you need to tell what is still (mostly) your story. There is both good and bad in this new Ad Astra ending. The aforementioned matcha meet-up is a stone cold screenwriting bummer, sure, but the return of the psychological testing that is intercut within at least adds a subtle tie back into the film’s beginning.

During the opening sequence, a collection of various introductory shards that explain to us where Roy is coming from, we hear Roy give a psychological test, which becomes a recurring event throughout the film as mandated by his profession. When we see Roy give this test at the beginning, he is calm of course, but the way he is framed is slightly obfuscated. The image doesn’t feel clear, like we’re being forced to look through some translucent glass to get to what Roy is saying.

In the final sequence, after Roy has returned, we can see him give his psychological test more clearly. The image is as crisp as can be. The only other noticeable visual difference comes in the helmets we can see reflected in glass around Roy, helmets Roy no longer needs. He is giving himself over to the world in front of his face, removing the shield that he has kept in between him and it for so long, so that he can live his own life. He has learned that the way to shield yourself is not to wall himself off; Roy can make a kingdom for himself that way, but it is a false kingdom. It’s a dictatorship run by somebody who can’t see more than six inches in front of his face. Anything you think you have perfected within it is a lie.

Speaking to Bilge Ebiri in Vulture, James Gray discussed the paradox of an unending quest, through the lens of filmmaking.

“One time, if I may drop his name, I had this fantastic conversation with Martin Scorsese, and he was talking about La Strada and he said, ‘I wish I could make a movie like that.’ I’m like, ‘You’ve made incredible movies, maestro.’ And he said, ‘I never made anything like that.’ I think the tragedy of Tommy Lee’s character is that he never found a pleasure in the beauties that he discovered. He never found beauty in the idea that human beings are what matter. The idea of striving is what matters.”

You can’t control everything at any level of filmmaking, at any level of existence, and to make any film you need to be honest with yourself about that, let alone one that costs as much as Ad Astra. The grander the vision, the more likely your vision will be messed with, but it’s better to try and fail and take the learning that comes with that than to stay hidden, meddling but protected in obscurity forever. You can have an infinite amount of work to do, reaching for something just ahead that isn’t really there, continually making changes because you feel you can’t get it right. At some point, you must accept that you have done as well as you can and learn to live within the world that is available to you. Submit.

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