As you read this, there appears to be no signs of James Gray’s Ad Astra releasing in India in the near future, which is inexplicable for a film starring Brad Pitt. I had the good fortune of watching it on an IMAX screen elsewhere. Perhaps the distributors may have deemed it too cerebral for our audiences? Maybe we will never know. What is sad is that the film has released pretty much everywhere else in the world, and is definitely a big screen theatrical experience that our audience has been cruelly denied thus far.
If you have been following these pages, from time to time I keep referring to men travelling up hostile rivers on quests, sometimes directly referencing Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), or not, like Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Gray’s previous film, The Lost City of Z (2016), also falls within this sub-genre.
Ad Astra powerfully evokes all these films. Indeed, at times it feels like it is The Lost City of Z, but in space. Translated from the Latin in Virgil’s Aenid, it means ‘to the stars’. Seneca the Younger wrote in Hercules Furens, “There is no easy way from the Earth to the stars.” In the film, there is indeed no easy way. The narrative driver is the aftermath of massive and lethal power surges on Earth, thought to eliminate from Lima, a Neptune project gone awry. The powers that be recruit the supremely fit — physically and psychologically — astronaut Brad Pitt, to find Project Lima and destroy it with nuclear weapons. The only catch is that the commander of that project is his own father, a legendary astronaut, who may be still alive and who may have gone rogue.
If all this feels rather familiar and akin to Captain Willard’s mission to ‘terminate [Colonel Kurtz] with extreme prejudice’ in Apocalypse Now, it is. However, Ad Astra wears its sources on its sleeve. There is an entire generation out there who may never have watched said source films and text, and here’s hoping that watching this one gets them to delve into literary and cinematic history and discover these all-time classics. That same generation is much more likely to have watched Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). The reason being that after much brooding and daddy issues being explored, Ad Astra takes a leaf out of the Gravity playbook in a way it would be churlish to reveal here.
Meanwhile, if whoever is responsible for distributing the film in India does so, post haste, there is a chase sequence on the moon that is alone worth the price of admission. And, the creaky, groaning, clanking spaceships of yore look, sound and feel real, in this important addition to the sci-fi genre. And, it looks like the year that will get Brad Pitt not one, but two, Oscar nominations. A supporting actor one for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and a best actor nod for Ad Astra.