Since Stanley Kubrick presented the dawn of man in cinematic form with his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Sci-Fi genre has been a setting used by numerous filmmakers as the perfect environment to tackle deep greater-than-life questions. The vastness of the surroundings and solitude it provides for its inhabitants naturally makes it the perfect setting for philosophical and existential journeys.
Soon after 2001, Tarkovsky replied with his much more inward looking Solaris. Instead of facing outward at the external forces of the world, these forces became the means of the plot to instead ask man to reflect on the human questions that we have all experienced in our lives on Earth.
Ad Astra undoubtedly evokes similar feelings to both films, but in its storytelling narrative feels far more closer to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the novel it is based on, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Like Captain Willard’s nightmare-like expedition deep into the heart of Vietnam to confront the face of evil, the gone-rogue Colonel Kurtz, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) sets off into outer space to attempt to contact his previously presumed dead father, Clifford, who is now suspected of being involved in potentially catastrophic attacks against the Earth.
Set in the “near future”, the film presents a vision of space that is a continuation of the problems that have plagued Earth in recent times. Geopolitical conflicts poise problems for Roy early on in his journey across the Moon. Rival countries battle over territory and conduct their own missions and experiments, with his commercial flight to the Moon providing a plausible look at where we could be heading if the capability for commercial space travel is achieved. Capitalism and war are still rife, with no promising answers or signs of progress for the benefit of humanity in sight.
It is this theme that runs throughout, as humans continue to pump time and money into missions to find something greater through science, we run the risk of losing sight of the very real human emotions that can not be quantified, only experienced through being. It is important for us not to forget the things that matter in our time alive - human relationships, the love that we can feel for others.
What elevates Ad Astra to the top level of modern films is the carefully considered direction of James Gray. As a director he clearly understands how to construct films with a language that conveys story incredibly powerfully, with superb shot composition and cinematography. Each frame feels like a painting, the spacial awareness between the characters and their exteriors is deliberate and affecting. Each movement and cut feels perfect, creating a powerful feeling of awe as we become immersed in Roy’s journey.
The direction allows the actors time and space to impose themselves physically, with Pitt’s performance giving the story a relatable emotional centre point that we can believe in. Although the special effects deployed throughout the film are spectacular, Gray does not heavily rely on these or quick cuts to create suspense or excitement like some other modern films. Instead he allows events to unfold more naturally, delicately editing together incredible visual sequences. There are a handful of scenes throughout the scene which are truly jaw dropping in their vision and execution, that deserve to be dissected and celebrated in all their glory.
Gray has said he set out to create the most realistic depiction of space travel put to film, and through his precise approach he does just that. The plot itself is nothing we have not seen before, and the story unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner, but it is the implicit power of the images that will linger in our minds much longer than the story itself.
With Ad Astra, Gray has created a new Sci-Fi classic that deserves to be discussed as one of the finest in its genre. It is refreshing to see a relatively low-key director get the backing and budget to create such a majestic, ambitious film. My hope is that is resonates with wider audiences and we can see even more personal, creative films get the releases they deserve.