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‘Ad Astra’ Is About Men’s Inability to Let Dad Go

In this ambitious sci-fi drama, Brad Pitt is a stand-in for every guy who views his dad as a mythic force he’ll spend the rest of his life chasing

Roy (Brad Pitt) hasn’t seen his father in decades — the old man may actually be dead — and yet his presence haunts him, fills in the gaps of his own life and seems to be guiding him with an invisible hand. Roy is an astronaut in the near future who’s very good at his job — so good, in fact, that he can withstand comparisons to his dad, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who was considered the best there ever was. Roy tries not to think about Clifford, but how can he not? After all, Clifford’s his dad, and what son doesn’t spend a large chunk of his day pondering his own father — wondering how he measures up, questioning what the old man would think of the choices he’s made. Clifford is stationed somewhere outside Neptune, but for Roy, he exists in that anxious headspace between the younger man’s ears. The father left the son long ago, but the son has never let go.

This sort of overly romantic, sappily macho description of Ad Astra’s central theme is sure to set many an eye rolling. (Portland Mercury’s fabulously snotty headline for its review was “In Space, No One Can Hear You Complain About Your Daddy Issues.”) And to be sure, Ad Astra is a very old-fashioned film — one in which a solitary white man ponders the big issues while going on an epic journey to connect with his distant, larger-than-life father. In Ad Astra, there’s barely a woman in sight — this is a story about manly emotions and manly grappling with life’s impossibilities. In just about any other context, I’d probably laugh, too. But here’s the thing about Ad Astra: It’s emotionally overwhelming, especially if you’re susceptible to the father-son issues that power its interstellar journey.

The film is directed and co-written by James Gray, who in movies like Little Odessa, Two Lovers and The Lost City of Z has shown a flair for classical storytelling and buttoned-down characters who are dealing with stormy inner conflicts. Depending on your temperament, his movies are either obvious or profound — simplistic or mythic — and some of the negative reactions I’ve heard to Ad Astra suggest that not everyone will be on the wavelength of this brainy, defiantly symbolic sci-fi drama. Ad Astra is far from perfect, but its laser-like focus on its core idea — how men go chasing after their fathers for the rest of their days — gives this movie a purity that’s nearly hypnotic, maybe because many (male) viewers will probably feel implicated by what they’re watching.

In Ad Astra, Roy is assigned to a risky, top-secret mission. Deadly energy waves are imperiling Earth, and they seem to be emanating from Neptune — could they be caused be the Lima Project, a government science expedition overseen decades ago by Clifford? No one has heard from the Lima Project in years, and the status of Clifford’s team has long been in doubt. Nevertheless, Roy is tasked with finding out what’s going on. 

For Roy, there are two possible outcomes to this mission, and neither is particularly welcome. In one scenario, he gets to Neptune and learns that his father is dead. In the other, he finds out that he isn’t, which means he’ll have to confront his old man, who left Earth so long ago. It’s a harrowing option to ponder: If we had the chance to tell our fathers what we wished we could, would we? In Ad Astra, Roy will encounter terrorists, ferocious beasts and the general hazards of space travel, but nothing scares him more than what it will mean if he sets eyes on his father for the first time in adulthood.

There’s an added twist of the knife to the fact that Pitt plays this stunted man. Back in 2011, he was the imposingly mercurial father figure of The Tree of Life, another movie that made daddy issues seem eternal and cosmic. In that Terrence Malick drama, Pitt gave us the perfect embodiment of a 1950s father — strong, stoic, intimidating, always slightly out of reach — but in Ad Astra, he’s the broken son, pining for a dad whose shadow he’s struggled to escape. Roy didn’t just follow Clifford’s professional path — it seems that he’s also aped the old man’s emotional detachment, remaining aloof from his ex-wife (Liv Tyler) in the same way that Clifford was with his family. This character construction would be a crushing like-father-like-son cliché if you didn’t see it play out in real life with so many men: They swear they’ll be different than their dads, and then they go ahead and repeat all their worst mistakes.

Ad Astra is part of a specific strain of science fiction that prizes a cool, intellectual tone, positioning very human themes against the backdrop of an awe-inspiring, indifferent universe. Portland Mercury’s Erik Henriksen places Gray’s film in the “weirdly specific film genre of Mopey Dudes in Space,” citing Solaris, Moon, Interstellar and First Man as other examples. That’s a clever line, but also insufficient in encapsulating what can often be quite moving about Ad Astra. Maybe Gray and Pitt are overinflating Roy’s torment by giving it such epic scale — not to mention putting Earth’s fate at stake — but the film’s stunning starkness makes the character’s anguish resonate so much more strongly. I could have done without the wall-to-wall voiceover, which underlines and over-explains the story’s themes, but that push/pull tension between confronting and fleeing from one’s father is powerful. And it only grows stronger the closer Roy gets to Neptune.

It would be unfair to reveal precisely what happens once Roy reaches his final destination — especially since Ad Astra just came out — but suffice it to say that a lot of this movie is riding on how it resolves the question “What happened to Clifford?” And on that level, I think it’s very successful, giving Roy an opportunity to finally talk to his father, man to man — but without the exact resolution he (or the audience) might have expected.

I’m lucky: I’m nothing like Roy, and Clifford is nothing like my dad. And yet, Ad Astra’s finale hit me right between the eyes. I’m 44 years old, but my dad still seems like the grownup in our relationship. It’s not that I’m immature, but I never feel like I’ll be an adult in the way he seemed when I was growing up. In a sense, we’re all on a quest to find our fathers, trying to become the men they’ve modeled for us while wondering what we do with the mixture of talents, limitations and strange peculiarities they’ve passed along to us.

Ad Astra presents that universal drama writ large, but the immediacy of its core message cuts to the quick. Fathers and sons are tethered to one another, even if like Roy and Clifford they haven’t spoken in forever. No two stars in the night sky are the same, we’re told, and each of us is unique, and yet there are those who know us better than anyone — who have created the road map for where we’re going. Roy is chasing after his father, but he’s also chasing after himself. We’re so curious about our fathers because, ultimately, we think they may have the answer to the mysteries of who we are. Nothing could be more elemental. Ad Astra pilots its protagonist to the edge of the solar system, but his real journey is into an unknown that may be even more terrifying than outer space — the uncomfortable, naked emotional intimacy between a father and a son. 

Here are three other takeaways from Ad Astra

#1. More people need to know about Max Richter.

Ad Astra’s score was written by Max Richter, a composer who doesn’t have the same high profile as Hans Zimmer or the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. But I think his music is wonderful. Here’s my modest attempt to make the case for him.

Richter works in a more classical mode than a lot of his contemporaries, which makes his scores sound more ethereal, although there are plenty of electronica elements as well. He’s written for operas and ballets as well, and the simplest way to describe his sound is “dreamy,” which I mean almost literally in regards to his 2015 work Sleep, which was written to mimic a person’s normal sleep cycle. (It runs about eight-and-a-half hours.) Richter has performed Sleep in its entirety around the world, including in L.A. in the summer of 2018, letting listeners doze on cots overnight while he and his band perform the suite. “The audience arrives; they can go to bed. … There are no rules,” he said at that time. “I hope they’ll make a journey through the night, in a way that feels authentic to them. … The piece is conceived as a kind of landscape. To travel through — to inhabit.” 

Sleep is a gorgeous, comforting piece of minimalist music, and it’s a good introduction to his oeuvre. But if he has a “Satisfaction” or “Heart of Gold” — his one big hit that everybody knows — it might be “On the Nature of Daylight,” a violin-driven instrumental that originally appeared on 2004’s The Blue Notebooks. Since then, though, it’s been used in a ton of movies, probably most notably in Shutter Island and Arrival. If the title doesn’t ring a bell, odds are you’ll recognize it once you click the YouTube link.

In recent years, Richter has segued into film and television composing, writing the scores for The Leftovers, Hostiles and Mary Queen of Scots. Ad Astra is his best film work to date, conveying the same restrained emotion that’s embodied in Pitt’s subdued performance. Next month, he’ll be playing a few U.S dates, including a return to L.A. I missed Sleep last year, but I already have my tickets for this concert. I’m ready for a night of eternal sighing.

#2. Let’s remember James Gray’s best film (which got torpedoed by its star, Joaquin Phoenix).

You no doubt recall that one time, back in 2009, when Joaquin Phoenix showed up on David Letterman’s Late Show with a scraggly beard and sunglasses, absentmindedly chomping on some gum and mumbling incoherently. It was an embarrassment. 

Perhaps you remember what the elaborate prank ended up being about — it was for material for the mockumentary I’m Still Here, which Phoenix was filming with his buddy Casey Affleck. (And for the record, contrary to rumors, Letterman wasn’t in on the stunt.) But if I asked you what movie he was supposed to be there to promote, you would probably not know. And that’s a shame — but not as big a shame as it was for Gray, who made the movie, and then had to watch Phoenix sabotage a plum promotional opportunity on national television.

That movie was Two Lovers, a beautiful romantic drama starring Phoenix as a troubled young man torn between two very different women: a party girl (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a shy family friend (Vinessa Shaw). For me, this film began Phoenix’s transition to the electric, anguished performances he’d give in later works like The Master and You Were Never Really Here. (We’ll talk about Joker in a couple weeks.) He’s dazzling and vulnerable as this young man, but this delicate, under-the-radar character piece needed all the help it could get — which is why the Letterman appearance should have been such a marketing coup. 

Remarkably, Gray didn’t just forgive Phoenix, who’d previously appeared in the director’s The Yards and We Own the Night — he cast him in his follow-up film, the period drama The Immigrant. “I was upset,” Gray admitted in 2014 about the Letterman fiasco. “Nobody remembers it was for Two Lovers. They remember the shtick. But the truth is, there aren’t a lot of really great actors, ones you love to work with, and they don’t grow on trees. It is what it is, and we never talked about it. I decided to just move on.”

Thankfully, movies outlast talk-show shtick. Two Lovers is waiting for people to rediscover it. Maybe one day, it’ll even outshine Phoenix’s Letterman appearance.

#3. I’d like to leave you with an inspirational message, courtesy of James Gray.

Gray is a filmmaker I really admire because he’s someone who has a very clear sense of the kinds of movies he wants to do — even if they’re not very commercial. That sort of proposition is getting tougher and tougher with studios becoming less-inclined to take risks, which means that Gray can go years between films. So how do you stick to your guns without turning bitter or crazy? Nathan Heller has an excellent profile of Gray in The New Yorker, and they talk about his commercial struggles.

I found much of the article inspiring, but I wanted to close on a particular paragraph that has stayed with me since reading it days ago. I don’t know how it is for women, but I think a lot of men — especially creative men — have this idea that they’re “supposed” to aspire to greatness. It’s not enough to have a career — you have to be legendary, a genius, a Great Man. Gray, who turned 50 earlier this year, got caught up in that thinking, but as he told Heller, that viewpoint has shifted of late:  

I think this is something a lot of us wrestle with. Does what we do “matter”? And if it doesn’t matter, then why do we do it? Ultimately, it’s the caring that’s important — we have to do things that bring us meaning, even if others don’t respond to it. Ad Astra is actually a beautiful reflection of this philosophy. Many will scoff at the film’s sincerity and solemnity: Oh, great, another movie about daddy issues. But that unashamed emotion is what gets to me. Ad Astra may have its flaws, but it cares deeply. And so, I hope it resonates for you as it does for me.