Ad Astra ★★★★½

Neil Armstrong, a man better remembered for being first than he is for being funny, once said that his greatest regret was that “my work required an enormous amount of my time, and a lot of travel.” It’s a bittersweet line from a taciturn giant who always tended to find the right words; an admission of deep sadness coated inside the candied shell of a solid quip. But while no one expects an Armstrong quote to make them laugh, some people — especially filmmakers — only seem to hear the pain underneath the astronaut’s punchline.

And they can’t quite wrap their heads around the questions that it raises. What could possibly inspire someone to climb aboard a volatile rocket and blast themselves towards another world in a screaming plume of fire? What kind of siren’s call sings to them from the infinite darkness of space? What are they trying to find out there in the unknown, and/or — most urgent of all — what are they trying to escape by leaving the Earth behind?

Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” saw Armstrong as a man so haunted by death that he could only make peace with his loss by using each part of it as a step on the ladder he climbed to the moon. James Gray’s similarly introspective (but far more idiosyncratic) “Ad Astra” looks forward to the courageous people who might stand on Armstrong’s shoulders and leap even deeper into the cosmos, and it wonders if they might all be cowards. Here, men only go to the stars in order to hide from themselves.