A Mesmerising Journey to the Stars
Over the last ten years or so there has been a renaissance in science fiction. Ever since the 1969 moon landing the topic of space travel had slowly begun to die out. That was until Gravity changed the game, once again using outer space as a centrepiece for storytelling. Since then, other films like Interstellar and First Man have followed in its footsteps, striving to make interplanetary travel seem more real by pushing the boundaries of CGI realism. However, amidst all this technological brilliance, Ad Astra takes a step further into the unknown by making the commodification of space travel appear ordinary.
James Gray’s latest film traces the journey of astronaut Roy McBride, a melancholy hero who is sent on a mission to find his father H. Clifford. Lauded as a saviour, Clifford disappeared 30 years ago near Neptune but recent electrical reverberations causing havoc on earth could possibly be linked with his disappearance.
From the first frame we are shown the inner workings of Roy’s mind through consistent and well-utilised voice over. Some of what Roy shares is mundane, but also often profound, mulling over the possibility of Clifford’s survival and the more pertinent issue of whether his father wants to be found. The general plotting of the film, along with the protagonists’ underlying crisis of meaning, has led many critics to compare Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola’s classic interpretation of Heart of Darkness. Its tale of a man sent on a mission into the depths of the unknown to track a mysterious man sounds familiar. While the protagonists in both films suffer from mental trauma, the frameworks of each differ considerably as the motivations, actions and climax of Ad Astra are radically different from Coppola’s Vietnam war epic.
To embark on his journey, Roy boards a commercial rocket headed for the moon where refreshments are served mid-flight much like on EasyJet. This attention to detail is what makes Ad Astra’s beautiful setting seem plausible in our own reality, forcing us to imagine a world where travelling to the Moon and Mars is a luxury we all could enjoy.
Gray decides to push the boundary between real and fiction as he formulates more scenarios that are plausible but currently impossible. An example of this is a car chase that is played out on the lunar surface with moon buggies. As the scene builds so does the beauty of it, climaxing with a buggy flying off a cliff. Slowly and hypnotically it floats, flawlessly intertwining tension and beauty in a single moment.
Throughout the mission, Roy is forced to conduct emotional evaluation tests which consistently show him to be virtually unflappable in the face of danger – so much so that he is almost emotionless. However, Brad Pitt brilliantly inhabits the role of Roy, exposing emotional depravity with only the subtlest of facial movements. This subtlety proves to be crucial as Ad Astra is an understated watch but that is not to say it is boring. In fact, spectacles propel the story as Roy continuously moves from one threat to another. But action doesn’t carry the story – like Apocalypse Now, it is the inner agony of the protagonist which makes the action sing. As Roy diligently continues in the vain hope of reconnecting with his long-lost father, he seems so helplessly alone.
At its heart, the film is about the anguish of one man who has lived most of his life without a father. While Clifford engaged in space flight to discover new life, Roy engages in it to escape himself, hopelessly trying to create a link between himself and his father. Roy’s failed marriage is occasionally brought up, acting as a pertinent reminder that this mission isn’t another film like Deep Impact, with characters hellbent on saving the world. Instead it is about a single astronaut’s attempts to reconcile years of emotional absence, trauma and guilt through the simple act of reconnecting with his father. So, while Ad Astra is a beautiful spectacle, the human story at its core is what makes it a true science fiction masterpiece.