Brad Pitt stars in a voyage to the deepest realms of space and consciousness when AD ASTRA opens on May 24. Pitt plays an Army engineer, who undertakes a solo voyage deep into the solar system to find a rogue astronaut who went missing on a mission years ago. There’s just one complication: The astronaut he’s after is his father.
Even though AD ASTRA opens soon, there’s not a lot of information about the movie. We don’t even have a trailer yet. Fortunately, co-writer and director James Gray has had a lot to say about his epic voyage over the last few years. Here’s how the film is designed to be a serious piece of science fiction.
Heart of Darkness
Pitt plays Roy McBride, whose father accepted a mission to Neptune in order to seek out signs of extraterrestrial life. In a September 2018 interview, James Gray explained that “[McBride’s] father may or may not be out there on Neptune doing very bad things, and they send him out there to communicate with him.”
According to Gray, AD ASTRA is “my attempt to kind of treat that father-son story, which is so central to Western culture, in hopefully a new way.” Gray went on to say that it is very “Heart of Darkness,” referencing the novel that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s movie APOCALYPSE NOW (above). “It’s sorta like, if you got APOCALYPSE NOW and 2001 in a giant mash-up and you put a little [Joseph] Conrad in there, and you hope it’s as good.”
From what we can glean so far, AD ASTRA takes that inspiration from Joseph Conrad to inform the story of McBride’s father going rogue way out in the frontier of space. Combine that with what Gray describes as “something that goes terribly wrong” and the seed for a serious space epic is planted.
Just because McBride flies out into the void of space to find his father doesn’t mean he’s a space hero cut from some traditional mold. He’s got to face the uncertainty of the mission and epic stretches of time alone. Gray discussed the reading he did about “trips to Mars, where they were purposefully trying to recruit people with Asperger’s syndrome,” with the idea being that some people are more prepared than others to handle months and months alone in space.
So, in the world of the film, “they choose people that they think are appropriately emotionally repressed [to go deep into space], but they’re not repressed enough and this craziness happens on the way.” So, you’ve got McBride’s father, who went out on this experimental voyage because he had nothing to lose, and the son on his trail, with “the terrible cabin fever that begins to set in.”
Keeping It Real
Despite the cosmic setting, Gray’s ambition for the movie was to be extremely grounded in look and feel. “The way I wanted to shoot it was like Apollo footage, incredibly realistic,” he said, which means AD ASTRA might be a good complement to the new APOLLO 11 documentary, pictured above. “You know that documentary FOR ALL MANKIND? The footage is remarkable: They shot all of this 16 mm footage and [I want to] do it like that. Very science based. Almost ‘science fact,’ but 50 years in the future.”
(FOR ALL MANKIND is a 1989 documentary assembled from Apollo mission footage, and it is just as good as Gray says it is.)
As dark as the story might be, AD ASTRA isn’t about projecting a vision of a totally awful future. “[I want to] fight the temptation — another mistake all sci-fi films make — of a dystopian future,” he said in 2016. He called the trend of visualizing a future where everything is really bad “a fairly boring dramatic idea.” Instead, he said, “I think it’s important to promote a future that is both dystopian and in some ways considerably better than the future we have now.”
AD ASTRA comes to AMC on May 24.