An adventurous person going out to investigate the unknown is one of the most common themes of fiction and drama. In this movie, the unknown is external and internal for Brad Pitt, who does a nice job conveying a man’s rising tension in a subtle but believable way. It makes for a thoughtful movie.
The setup is this: It is the “near future,” and the the universe is being rocked by seismic explosions. Thousands of people are dying on earth, and nobody seems to have any idea what is happening or how to respond.
The US Space Command is on the case, and so is crack astronaut Maj. Roy McBride (Pitt), who is deployed into the stars (ad astra in Latin.) He’s the right man for the job — unemotional, self-controlled and able to “compartmentalize” his concerns as other mortals cannot. In addition, he is the son of another astronaut (Col. McBride, seen in pictures and old transmissions as Tommy Lee Jones) who disappeared on a space mission in Roy’s boyhood.
Roy chose the same career as his father, who Roy believes died long ago on the Lima Project, a mission near Neptune. Still, when an SOS message arrives from that long-silent project, a supervisor says, “We have to hold out the possibility that your father is hiding from us. ”
This sets in motion a journey that owes much to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella about a journey up the Congo River to find what what has happened to Kurtz, an agent of Belgium’s cruel colonial empire. The same theme was taken up by Francis Coppola in Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie about a search for a mysterious Col. Kurtz who has disappeared in Vietnam.
Roy flies commercial to the moon, now a cheesy tourist destination, and from there to a space station on Mars. Along the way he meets a space traveler who has reason to hate Roy’s father and he tussles with several kinds of danger. Roy meets these challenges and, sang-froid generally intact, proceeds alone to the space station outside Neptune and a confrontation that answers some of his questions.
There is irony in a story that sends Roy billions of miles to find out who his father was/is — and, by extension, who Roy himself is, deep down inside. Also interesting is the application of Christian terms to frame the meaning-of-life questions implied by such exploration. Before takeoff, a space pilot prays for guidance from St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Later a wise man says this: “May you meet your redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God to the end.”
Like other space-travel movies, this one has unfillable plot holes. We don’t know yet how humans will power their way from one distant planet to another, how they will fight if they encounter unfriendly forces or how they will get home, if ever. This requires screenwriters to invent improbable solutions, which is understandable and yet a little frustrating even for viewers whose knowledge of astronomy is limited.
Except for that, the movie is interesting and moving.
Ad Astra was popular at cineplexes over the weekend, but not nearly as popular as the Downton Abbey reunion movie, which apparently drew many fans of the multi-season story of a British noble family and its servants. If I read correctly, its plot suggests a(nother) sequel may be planned.
In addition, its creator, Julian Fellowes, has been promising an American-based series, The Gilded Age, on a similar theme set in the 1880s.
The thing is, those rich guys in the 1880s were called robber barons and they were very unpopular with the common folk. Much of their money was made in new industrial facilities, where angry employees launched the first round of labor union organizing in the US. Today the country is much wealthier overall, but it still seems riven with resentment about inequality in incomes and wealth.
Given all that, why are audiences so captivated with stories of people with landed estates and great fortunes?