It’s imperfect and complicated and challenging. The expectation of the traditional sci-fi, popcorn flick — like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” — is founded in as much reality as Tatooine or Vulcan.
The most recent comparison for “Ad Astra,” which hit theaters Sept. 20, is probably Christopher Nolan’s 2014 space epic “Interstellar.” They both have the world-ending stakes in their beautiful, near-future settings; they both grapple with parental abandonment, through from opposite perspectives; and they both put the loneliness of space travel under a microscope.
But “Ad Astra,” from director/co-writer James Gray, presents a much more grounded story of isolation, fatherhood and identity wrapped inside a breathtaking environment.
“Interstellar” is all spectacle, even during its greatest attempts at profundity. In “Ad Astra,” most of the screen time is dedicated to intimate scenes with Brad Pitt — who stars as astronaut Roy McBride — in a lunar or Martian base, or inside of a spaceship.
When “Ad Astra” dives into spectacle, it’s to move the plot along or show time passing. The lunar-buggy set piece, which depicts space pirates ambushing McBridge and his convoy, was probably the coolest-looking five minutes I’ve seen on the big screen this year.
To find a suitable comparison for “Ad Astra,” you have to go back 40 years — and go back to Earth, to the war-torn jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. Gray has an obsession with Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” I found out about on his “The Big Picture” podcast appearance two-and-a-half years ago, and I was instantly smitten. I drove an hour on a weeknight in August to see the final-cut release of “Apocalypse Now” in theaters. Even though I’d seen it probably 15-20 times, I had never seen it on the big screen.
You could see parallels with Gray’s 2016 film, “The Lost City of Z,” in which real-life explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunham) obsesses over finding a lost civilization in Amazonia in the early 20th century.
Gray doubles down with “Ad Astra” by putting “Apocalypse Now” in space.
Five years ago, for the 35th anniversary of the epic, Gray wrote a column that reads like a love letter to “Apocalypse Now.” In it, he writes, “The film introduces us to American might in all its mechanized glory, then methodically reduces that power to nothing.” That could be written about “Ad Astra” today.
The movie opens with McBride on the gigantic International Space Antenna. This is when we see the first “surge,” take place, killing many of McBride’s astronaut peers and nearly ending McBride himself. We see what a colonized moon, and the commercial flight that takes civilians there, looks like — Hudson News, Applebee’s, Subway and all. We are also shown a colonized Mars, though in a more militarized than commercialized way. Oh, and human travel to Neptune is possible.
“Ad Astra” reduces all that to nothing by putting the sci-fi grandiosity on the backburner, and turning it into a deeply introspective story of McBride and the legacy and reality of his father.
After the first surge, McBride is called upon for a mission. The “Lima Project” — helmed by his father, Clifford McBride, an astronaut of Neil Armstrong-level reverence in this fictional universe — was created to search the depths of space for intelligent life. No one had heard anything for 16 years, and Roy McBride believed his father was dead.
Turns out he’s alive, and the surges may be coming from the Lima Project near Neptune. The higher-ups at U.S. Space Command want Roy McBride to travel to Mars, where an underground base has been unaffected by the surges, to establish communication with his father.
The “Apocalypse Now” of this movie is apparent right away, as this mission-pitch scene plays just like Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) getting assigned the mission to “terminate (Col. Kurtz) with extreme prejudice.” Only with one major wrinkle, the Col. Kurtz of “Ad Astra” is the protagonist’s father. Not to mention Pitt’s voiceover work mirroring Sheen’s.
One of the masterstrokes of “Apocalypse Now” — and “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella on which the film is loosely based — is its ability to build up Col. Kurtz throughout the story. There are all these roadblocks along the way, but Kurtz is the through-line. And the deeper and deeper Willard travels down the Nung River, the more information he (and us, the audience) learns about the ominous foe waiting at the end.
It plays out the same in “Ad Astra.” But the de-facto villain is Roy McBridge’s father, and gets his sympathy because of that large fact. It’s a relationship that was never fully realized, and a hope for reconciliation.
Despite the parallels with “Apocalypse Now,” it’s the father-son dynamic in “Ad Astra” that takes the story and the resulting climax to a much more moving level.
“Ad Astra” has the bones of “Apocalypse Now,” and its imperfections are enough to not make it a transcendent movie. But like its inspiration, it has the rare ability to make me think about it for days after seeing it, and maintain the desire to see it again.
Warner Strausbaugh is a Colorado Springs resident and page designer for Pikes Peak Newspapers. Contact him with questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.