Long before mental health awareness pigeonholed the Joker personality as a damaged loser prodding psychological wounds, Bob Kane’s villain existed somewhere between the cynical and the sardonic, like an instrument of showy destruction joyously sticking a thorn into the sides of his opposition. If the early comic book readers never quite saw him as a great monster, it’s because the material was emboldened by the irony of the façade; the clown makeup and the ridiculous cackle were behaviors of cartoon personalities rather than straight madmen. But now we have crossed into the space where graphic yarns have lost that distinction and have become living embodiments of the terror within. With that the villains of Gotham City have gone through a considerable transformation, starting with the Tim Burton “Batman” films, where criminal minds were founded by childhood trauma rather than a simple need to be devious. Christopher Nolan’s adaptations took this prospect even further; gone were the absurdist production designs, and in their place were tangible forces of darkness that seemed as if they were walking past us on any ordinary city street. The most profound modern realization of the Joker belonged to “The Dark Knight,” where Heath Ledger took the idea beyond the source’s own possibility and showed us a broken personality whose chaotic tendencies were like a roadmap leading back to a mind wrought with personal hell. Alas, now we must contend with Todd Phillips’s miserable “Joker,” about a man who knows no humor, slogs through a world riddled in corruption and limitation, and finds escape in unleashing the sort of gratuity and destruction usually reserved for cynical horror films.
The most reflective moment in “Ad Astra” takes place just outside the orbit of Neptune, seen hovering in the distance like the most vulgar mood indicator in a sci-fi film since the ominous planet in “Solaris.” While its energies don’t directly influence the emotional demeanors of those nearby, their attitudes have all but foregone a similar deep melancholy: a recognition that there may be only deafening solitude in the great emptiness that is space. Up to that point, James Gray’s mysterious film foreshadows that statement via a morose internal monologue by his lead star: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut who has abandoned a family on Earth to take to the same stars his father disappeared into decades before. But when he must confront the man he feels abandoned him, what can they say to one another? Was his father’s sacrifice really all terrible given that Roy has followed the same trajectory? Aboard the rusting ship that once housed a crew seeking intelligent life, two men lose the desire to form a cogent reasoning and can only submit, quietly, to a discovery that ought to have been obvious all along. What is not as discernable, at least until those final scenes, is how Gray will fill his audience with the same sense of dread. If we come to science fiction to understand the unknown and make it palpable, here is a movie that suggests we are naive in assuming greater secrets beyond our own corroding existence.