‘Ad Astra’ is the terrible, majestic, urgent space opera for our time

Images courtesy — oh no, you maniacs, oh god damn it all! Images courtesy Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

10/10 In space, no one can hear you scream. No one can hear you do or say anything at all, in fact. That’s because in space, there’s usually no one else there.

In the near future, the United States Space Command has established permanent bases on the moon and Mars, and commercial lunar travel is just another trip to the airport. As technology marches ever further into the heavens even while our ecology continues to collapse around us, humanity has grown desperate in its search for extraterrestrial life –for any shred of evidence to break the Fermi Paradox, proof that we aren’t already doomed, an example of some civilization that has solved our current problems. USSC sends a space station, a highly classified mission called the Lima Project helmed by Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), into orbit around Neptune, the furthest manned mission in history, to conduct anti-matter experiments that may finally connect us with intelligent life.

I’ve always thought the belief in alien life and the belief in God came from the same human instinct. They manifest very differently in different kinds of people – belief in extraterrestrial life, or even the notion of it, would be explicitly antithetical to early Christian teachings, for an extreme example – but they both stem from the notion that human life being unique, that we might have this entire universe to ourselves, would be too terrifying to bear. The real horror is that, even as we study the stars and ancient texts and send radio waves and prayers into the sky in the hopes that someone, anyone, is listening, we might be completely alone.

In Ad Astra – Latin, “To the stars” – Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, who also produces), Cliff McBride’s son, is a decorated USSC officer working on the International Space Antenna. It has been 29 years since the Lima Project’s launch and 16 since its last transmission, and the ship is assumed to be lost. Earth is struck by a blast of anti-matter that destroys the antenna and devastates power grids across the planet. Knowing Cliff McBride is the likely culprit, USSC recruits Roy McBride to plead with him for a communication, either to talk him down or do get him to reveal his location so they can destroy him.

Cliff McBride is God, in case that wasn’t clear. The bearded old man most often referred to as “my father,” who lives on the other side of Neptune tending to what he refers to as his “infinite work,” who hurls lightning bolts across the solar system that envelope the entire planet, who our main character launches himself 2.7 billion miles into the sky to find in order to repair his own shattered identity? Yeah, there’s just a tiny bit of Christian metaphor at play here.

Ad Astra is both subtle and incredibly ambitious. Even its opening scene on the space elevator is set in a more dramatic and foreign environment than most films dare venture, and when they do, it’s all obviously computer generated. This, and all of the wild locations in this odyssey, looks like they really went there, but they still don’t linger on the setting like it’s an accomplishment. Compare something like Black Panther, which goes out of its way to make Wakanda seem expansive but has only a handful of locations that we actually spend time in and they’re all obviously sound stages, to Ad Astra, which matter-of-factly visits some of the most majestic locations in the known universe.

Ad Astra began as writer/director James Gray’s desire to portray space travel as realistically as possible, and that’s a large part of what makes it so poignant. Films like The Martian and Interstellar have already taken science-fact technology to blockbuster heights in recent years, but while those films reflect realistic technology, Ad Astra reflects realistic policy. The film opens with a scene on a space elevator, a concept that dates all the way back to the 1800s. Though President Donald Trump calls it his “Space Force,” the USSC is very much a military branch dedicated to protecting American interests in space. The U.S. and other countries have permanent bases on the Moon and Mars, and they remain separate – Mars has something called a North America Zone, implying it’s been divided, but this is much more explicit on the moon, where much of the surface is a legal no-man’s-land roamed by bands of moon pirates.

Oh yeah – this movie has moon pirates.

Despite being a highly philosophical decent-into-madness style story about searching for God, Ad Astra is still very much an action blockbuster with several intense fight scenes, and one that puts most of its peers absolutely to shame. Comic book movies, the eminent blockbusters of the past decade, have gotten incredibly dull visually – DC movies famously look like mud, but Marvel movies quietly refuse to do much better, mostly looking like concrete and video game cutscenes. But in most of its high-octane sequences, Ad Astra looks like National Geographic. The reds of Mars, Neptune’s midnight blues, even the greys of the moon seem vibrant and alive.

The visual effects are stunning. There’s never even a hint of obvious CGI or greenscreen work. It all looks completely real and completely alien at the same time as McBride ventures further and further beyond where any human has ever gone.

Ad Astra’s use of current technology and settings we learn about in elementary school heightens everything about it. This isn’t a galaxy far, far away full of infinite possibilities, this is our own cold, empty backyard. Space travel isn’t a zip through slipspace aboard the Enterprise. It’s a long, dark journey in a big tube that is the only thing separating you from the abyss.

MOON PIRATES! THIS MOVIE HAS MOON PIRATES!

In these frighteningly vivid and alien spaces, made all the more frightening and vivid by the knowledge that they really exist, Ad Astra portrays a humanity that has not moved passed its problems. Mental health is now closely monitored but is still used against individuals. Mood stabilizers and comfort rooms, where users are surrounded by the amenities of Earth, are standard-issue. We are still divided politically and personally, with even the celestial bodies shared and worshiped by cultures across history now marred by imaginary lines. Nothing drives the meaninglessness of our conflicts home quite like watching two men on a spacewalk orbiting a distant planet, witness to one of the most resplendent, sublime things in our solar system, instead grapple with each other for their lives.  

There’s a popular meme about our place in history in 2019 – “it was supposed to be space travel.” The idea is, when we were younger, we couldn’t wait for events as momentous as those in history books seemed to come back into the present, but now with our environment collapsing and some weird combination of the Watergate Scandal and the Holocaust repeating itself, we regret the anticipation, saying it was supposed to be space travel. Ad Astra is space travel, but it isn’t any easier.  

As profound as the film is, it’s not what you’d call original. The list of movies whose DNA is apparent in Ad Astra is massive – I already mentioned Interstellar and The Martian, which are joined by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Star Wars and even video games like Bioshock and Dead Space, to name just a few, but it has the most in common with Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. That might seem like it follows logically, but original and sequel are two extremely different movies in this case.

From Blade Runner, Ad Astra takes the brutally bleak view of current society, as well as the infamous narration that was removed from the cuts of Blade Runner that gained cult popularity. Roy McBride narrates through Ad Astra as well, and while some of his lines add quite a bit, others cover up spoken words. Much worse, others overexplain and make the film’s rich themes explicit instead of debatable and nuanced. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a cut with this narration removed were much better.

Ad Astra also clearly takes separate inspiration from 2049, another brutally slow and brilliantly colorful science-fiction epic in which the main character, who is subjected to regular psychological evaluations, goes on a lonely, sanity-rending quest to get answers from his presumed-dead father. There’s a great deal of overlap between the films, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many people develop a strong preference for one over the other –I still prefer 2049, but Ad Astra is 40 minutes shorter and thematically different enough that it they can still coexist. It also has much less important sound design, meaning it should lose less when moving to the small screen.

With great swaths of Ad Astra taking place inside a space module, it’s tough to register the changes in landscape as they happen, leaving the movie’s small handful of landscape shots feeling like haymakers.

That’s a long list of films and media Ad Astra has common ground with, but that’s only the ones we remember. There’s a mass grave of science fiction media that didn’t leave much of a cultural mark that were trying to capture exactly what Ad Astra is.

Ad Astra is at once an urgent cry about the anxieties of 2019 and an instant classic that will clearly be revisited decades from now – if we’re all not dead by then – and an achingly beautiful story about coming to terms with hurtling through space entirely alone. Go see it, go see it in IMAX and go see it again. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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