The void of space is one of humanity's greatest inspirations. Filmmakers, in particular, are drawn to the mysteries and dangers of outer space. Over the past few years, the final frontier has been depicted in ever-more realistic fashion, in films like GRAVITY, INTERSTELLAR and THE MARTIAN.
On September 20, James Grey's intimate new sci-fi epic, AD ASTRA, starring Brad Pitt, will launch a new perspective on space exploration. "Ad Astra" is Latin for “to the stars,” and as the title implies, Pitt's character will undertake a grandiose adventure through the cosmos. But in a film landscape where going to space is just the next step for some franchises (either FAST & FURIOUS or MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE must soon head to the stars), AD ASTRA will be a unique sci-fi story.
In AD ASTRA, Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, a top-ranked astronaut with schizophrenic tendencies and a big chip on his shoulder. When Roy was a young man, his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) commanded Lima, a mission to search for extraterrestrial life in outer space. 16 years into the mission, Clifford disappeared without a trace.
Years later, there's a global crisis that comes to be called “The Surge.” It triggers massive fires and plane crashes around the world. Some think the catastrophe was set off by Clifford, who had been experimenting with an antimatter reaction capable of putting an end to the solar system.
With humanity on the brink of destruction, Roy is sent to outer space to find Clifford and, hopefully, put an end to the chaos. Throughout his journey, the astronaut will be faced with shocking revelations about humans and his own father.
Don’t let the flashy title and special effects deceive you; humanity, and specifically our search for answers about our own existence, is the real crux of AD ASTRA. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, director James Gray explained how he took advantage of the nature of the space setting to explore heavy themes:
“[What] I've tried to do is shake up the genre a little bit. It’s all of a piece where you want the film to be dramatically fulfilling and to tackle some profound stuff, because that's the genre that enables you to do so.”
The film's tagline is even more succinct: “The answers we seek are just outside our reach.” AD ASTRA has been shrouded in a veil of secrecy, so we don't know just how the story will approach what is obviously a huge question about existence. Still, the basic meaning is clear: first and foremost, this is a multi-faceted human story. It centers on the twisted relationship between a father and a son, while also focusing on humankind’s obsession with space, and the realization that the cosmic frontier may not be the idyllic paradise some hope it to be.
Of course, the film isn’t devoid of classic sci-fi elements. Quite the opposite, in fact. AD ASTRA features space fights and outer-space colonies. What’s fascinating is that these elements are rooted in plausibile science, so they don't weaken the story's human core.
At first glance, realism and heavy special effects may not appear to go hand in hand. During an interview with Collider, Gray stated that one of his priorities with the film was getting the special effects sequences to feel real. "What I’m trying to do," he said, "is [create] the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie."
Granted, having rock-solid CGI also helps keep audiences focused on the heavier themes. Gray has already proven to be a master of character and weighty stories, in films like THE IMMIGRANT and THE LOST CITY OF Z. Now he takes a step into a bold new frontier, and we can't wait to see how skillfully he pilots the ship.
All images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.