Protagonists, in stories of humans voyaging through space, are never simply individuals. They may carry their own unique personalities and traits, but more than anything else, they are presented as paragons of humanity, embodiments of the NASA ideal to send our best and brightest to traverse the unknown. Star Trek had its adventurous diversity, Alien had its utilitarian coldness, and the latest from Lost City of Z director James Grey has Brad Pitt’s Major McBride, a man running just as fast away from his angst, as he is bolting head-first directly into it.
The latest in the more recent crop of psychologically-charged space operas, such as Interstellar, Gravity and The Martian, this feature makes for the most explicitly psychiatric of that bundle. Its frequent interjections of McBride doing automated psychological tests – an upfront admission of the running motif of the mental strain of space travel that has been at the heart of the sub-genre for decades – show near-future mankind as being just as screwed-up as the present.
How little humanity has changed since beginning its quest for new worlds, and potentially new species, is stitched into every fibre of the film’s narrative and aesthetic. From its humdrum, almost domestic, depiction of commercial space flight, to the lunar space port that features ads for ‘Moon’s Got Talent’, the interstellar future presented here is one where mankind still hasn’t resolved its problems with itself, instead riding shotgun on their way beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Even outside of the blue marble, we are still as territorial, narcissistic and misguided as ever.
When put into context with McBride’s personal journey, taking him from the aquatic blue of Earth to the almost-Kleinian blue of Neptune in a bid to save his home from destruction, it presents a quietly frightening spin on the space opera that hasn’t gotten this scale of a mainstream boost this side of the new millennium.
Ad Astra contrasts the leap into new territory and possibilities with the underlying defiance of the earthbound past, aided by Tommy Lee Jones’ haunting and nigh-on spectral visage as McBride’s father, the film almost makes a mockery of the idea that man is trying to find life beyond the confines of Earth. If we can’t even treat the species on our own planet properly, chances are the same will be for any extra-terrestrials we may encounter.
While there are occasional moments of genre-weirdness between the lines – the rover-driving moon bandits or a memorable sequence involving a berserker monkey in zero-gravity – the framing, performances and pragmatic handling of the story let the true drama of the events sink in steadily. It’s a more classical brand of space opera, one that uses the trappings and visuals of science fiction to explore ideas that are unshakeably human and terrestrial. As scribed by Gray and Fringe writer Ethan Gross, and as captured by Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning cinematography, Ad Astra healthily sets itself apart from its competitors to make for a sombre and enriching hurtle through the stars.