There’s no question that flying in space has the potential to be scary. It involves heading into an incredibly hostile environment, cocooned in technology, a long way from any sort of practial help; and both real-life disasters and works of fiction (Gravity, The Martian) have demonstrated that if the technology fails, the possibility of never coming home is very real. But there is another side of spaceflight – at least, future prospects of spaceflight – which is no less frightening. Space is very big and very empty. Neptune, the outermost planet in the Solar System, is thirty times further away from the Sun than we are. The furthest we’ve ever gone from home is the Moon, a three-day journey – what psychological effect would a manned interplanetary voyage into the abyss have? And what if it truly is an abyss? What if we don’t even find whatever we’re looking for? It’s questions like this that Ad Astra leaves you reflecting upon.
In the near future, when a space elevator stands above the Earth’s surface and settlements have been established on the Moon and Mars, Earth starts experiencing dangerous power surges, which are linked to cosmic ray bursts in the vicinity of Neptune. Officials conclude that this activity is linked to the Lima Project, a mission to the outer Solar System, commanded by legendary astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), which vanished years before. Clifford’s son Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), now an astronaut himself, is assigned the mission of travelling to Mars and trying to establish contact with his father – and so Roy sets out on a journey, not only into the depths of space, but the depths of his own soul.
It took some time for me to get into this film; in fact, until about the halfway mark, I was finding it slow and even a bit dull. Any conflict and action in the first half comes from a couple of isolated incidents that are unrelated to Roy’s central mission. The main thing I liked at this point was the high-definition visuals; first looking down on Earth from the International Space Antenna, then the excellent views of the Moon and Mars, both from orbit and down on their respective surfaces. Eventually, however, once I could grasp the central themes of the film, I was able to appreciate it a lot more, and I expect I’ll get more overall enjoyment out of it on a second viewing.
While the plot is essentially Heart of Darkness in space, Ad Astra uses the concept to give food for thought about both space travel and life on Earth. Roy, the protagonist, is a man who is alone before he even leaves Earth; he is focussed and emotionally closed off, which has caused his relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler) to break down, and he is forced to reflect upon his own characteristics – and those of his father – as he heads out into the tangible loneliness of space. The film demonstrates the potential consequences of focussing too much on what might be out there beyond the here and now, and neglecting what is real and true and already right next to you. The idea of going to the Moon may sound like a great adventure right now, but in this film, all that’s there is what people brought with them, from conflict and piracy to Subway sandwiches. The final message promotes a better appreciation of what we have on Earth, along the lines of what astronaut Rusty Schweickart called the “cosmic birth” inspired by the Apollo astronauts, who were able to look back on their home planet like a newborn baby looking back at its mother.
Ad Astra is a thoughtful, visually beautiful, sometimes unnerving film – it may not have universal appeal, but if you get restless during the first half, stick with it and see what you think of the second. Rating: 4.5/5.