**_Despite some utterly absurd diversions (chase scene! horror scene! shoot-out scene!), this is a quality science-fiction narrative, suggesting the answers we seek in the stars are actually found within_**
>_macte nova virtute, puer, sic itur ad astra,
dis genite et geniture deos._
- Publius Vergilius Maro; _Aeneis_ (29-19 BC)
>_N = R∗ · fp · ne · fl · fi · fc · L_
>_N = The number of civilisations in the Milky Way whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable (i.e. which are on our current past light cone)._
>_R∗ = The average rate of the formation of stars._
>_fp = The fraction of stars with planetary systems._
>_ne = The average number of planets, per star with planetary systems, with an environment suitable for life._
>_fl = The fraction of planets with an environment suitable for life on which life actually appears._
>_fi = The fraction of planets on which life actually appears on which intelligent life emerges._
>_fc = The fraction of planets on which intelligent life emerges that develop a technology capable of releasing detectable signs of their existence into space._
>_L = The length of time such intelligent life release detectable signals into space._
- The Drake Equation; Frank Drake (1961)
>In Drake's original hypothesis, the proposed values were:
>R∗ = 1 yr−1 (1 star formed per year, a very conservative estimate)
>fp = 0.2 to 0.5 (one fifth to one half of all stars formed will have planetary systems)
>ne = 1 to 5 (stars with planetary systems will have between 1 and 5 planets with an environment suitable for life)
>fl = 1 (100% of planets with an environment suitable for life will develop life)
>fi = 1 (100% of planets which develop life will develop intelligent life)
>fc = 0.1 to 0.2 (one tenth to one fifth of planets which develop intelligent life will develop life capable of releasing detectable signs of their existence into space)
>L = 1,000 to 100,000,000 years
>This gives N as a range between 20 and 50,000,000, although Drake asserted that, given the uncertainties involved, the more likely range was that N ≈ L, hence there are between 1,000 and 100,000,000 intelligent civilisations in the Milky Way with whom communication should be possible.
>_We're searching for intelligent life-forms that have also evolved conscious self-awareness. We're searching for conscious, intelligent life-forms that have both the available resources and the need to manipulate raw materials into tools. We're searching for intelligent, conscious, tool-making beings that have developed a language we're capable of understanding. We're searching for intelligent conscious, tool-making, communicative beings that live in social groups (so they can reap the benefits of civilization) and that develop the tools of science and mathematics._
>_We're searching for ourselves..._
- Stephen Webb; _If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … Where Is Everybody?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life_ (2002)
A short while ago, Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja's mesmerising _Aniara_ (2018) pondered the insignificance of mankind when considered against the infinity of space and time. An esoteric science-fiction film in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick's _2001: A Space Odyssey_ (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky's _Solyaris_ (1972), it attempted, amongst other things, to convey the sense of near-inconceivable vastness that must be attendant to any self-respecting pseudo-realist discussion of the universe, and to convey the psychological ramifications of what it must feel like to be lost in such a vastness. This is the lineage into which _Ad Astra_ wishes to step, but for me, it has more in common with Danny Boyle's excellent _Sunshine_ (2007) and Christoper Nolan's enjoyable but flawed _Interstellar_ (2014); irrespective of its themes and tropes, it remains fundamentally a mainstream Hollywood movie. And whilst such a status can certainly hold advantages for a filmmaker (primarily in terms of budget and casting), so too are there major pitfalls in having to toe the line of commerciality and cater to demands for crowd-pleasing material, demands which often don't jibe with esoteric content. In the case of _Sunshine_, this took the form of a relatively sudden genre shift into horror that Boyle doesn't fully pull off, and in the case of _Interstellar_, it's an unnecessary third-act twist that's (paradoxically) as predictable as it is nonsensical. And so we have _Ad Astra_, where it's in the form of an overly convenient resolution and some of the most ludicrous narrative diversions I've seen since the sojourn to Canto Bight in the Rian Johnson abomination that was _Star Wars: The Last Jedi_ (2017), diversions which seem to belong in a different film entirely, so tonally unrelated are they to the more existential material surrounding them (space pirates! enraged simians! knife-fight/shoot-out!). Which is not to say, for one second, that I disliked the film – I didn't; even if the narrative never manages to get beyond the "_Heart of Darkness_ in space" template and the script relies far, far too heavily on a sub-Terrence Malick voiceover. The craft on display is exceptional and the story is thought-provoking and generally entertaining, with a terrific central performance, and some spectacular visuals (especially in the IMAX format). But it all could have been so much better.
Set at an unspecified point in the near future (an opening legend informs us, rather generically, that it's "_a time of hope and conflict_"), space travel has become routine, with the moon not unlike any major city on Earth, although there are territorial disputes and marauding pirates are a constant threat. Mars too has been colonised, although it's not yet open to the public. As the film begins, we meet SpaceCom's Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who is working on repairs to the International Space Antenna – a massive communications array that juts miles into the sky from the surface of the Earth. When a huge explosion causes him to fall from the antenna, he remains unnaturally calm as he plummets to Earth, and is able to land relatively unscathed. In a debriefing, he's told the explosion was just one result of a series of energy surges that originated near Neptune and which have left much of Earth and the moon without power. 29 years previously, Roy's father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left Earth as the leader of the Lima Project, a mission aimed at establishing contact with whatever alien civilisations may be elsewhere in the galaxy. Needing to get far enough from the Sun's solar interference to send out adequate communications, the Lima team travelled to the same region near Neptune from which the surges are now emanating. However, 16 years into the mission, all contact was lost. SpaceCom presumed the crew dead, but now they fear that Clifford may be behind the surges, and with an antimatter power core at his disposal, if he has become unhinged, he could create a chain reaction that would eradicate all life in the galaxy (it's best not to dwell too much on the script's fundamental misrepresentation of how matter and antimatter interact). However, all attempts at communication have failed, and so Roy's highly classified mission is simple – travel to a secure long-range communications base on Mars and record a (prewritten) message for Clifford in the hopes he might respond. And, of course, it's no spoiler to say that the mission doesn't exactly go smoothly.
_Ad Astra_, which is written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, and directed by Gray (_The Yards_; _We Own the Night_; _The Immigrant_; _The Lost City of Z_), wastes no time in tying us rigidly to Roy's perspective; it opens with a POV shot from inside his helmet, and the first words we hear are him speaking in voiceover. This sets up the narrative to come, as Roy remains the sole focaliser throughout – we see and hear what he sees and hears, we know what he knows, we learn things as he learns then, and we never experience anything with which he is not directly involved. Such rigid focalisation can lend itself to some very subtle moments. For example, as Roy thinks back to a time before his marriage broke up, there is a shot of him sitting on a bed in a darkened room. Barely visible behind him, lying down, is his then-wife Eve (a thankless and largely wordless performance by a blink-and-you-miss-her Liv Tyler). As the camera moves in on him, Eve fades out of the image – she disappears without him noticing, which sounds like it should be horribly on the nose, but because it's dark, because she was out of focus to begin with, and because by the time she disappears, Roy has come to occupy almost the entire frame, it makes the moment easy to miss, and rather poignant – he quite literally doesn't notice his wife phasing herself out of his life because of his obsession with his career (his focus on work is something he shares with Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) in Gray's masterpiece, the criminally overlooked _Lost City of Z_, although to be fair to Fawcett, Roy's single-mindedness at the expense of all else makes Fawcett look like husband-of-the-year material).
The fact that the film is set amongst the stars, but remains always tied to Roy's perception allows Gray to fashion a narrative that's both massive in scope yet emotionally intimate (in this sense, he one-ups Kubrick, whose _2001_ has all the grandeur and awe imaginable but is relatively detached from and uninterested in its characters' psychologies). Gray is aided immensely in this by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (_The Fighter_; _Her_; _Interstellar_; _Dunkirk_), arguably the finest currently active DoP not named Emmanuel Lubezki. Shot on 35mm film, van Hoytema's gorgeous photography effortlessly captures the overwhelming scale of the milieu, but also frequently shoots Pitt in tight close-ups that afford the actor little room to hide his emotions (which become more and more externalised as the film progresses).
Speaking of emotions, depending on your perspective, Pitt's portrayal of Roy is either one of the film's most laudable aspects or one of its most alienating. Initially played as emotionally closed off, if not necessarily shut down (he tells us in VO, "_I've been trained to compartmentalise my emotions_"), he's depicted as cold and distant. This stoicism, however, slowly starts to erode as his mission begins to go wrong, although there are a few early hints that all is not well - his fixation on the breakup of his marriage, for example, or his observation of the crew of the _Cepheus_ (which takes him from the moon to Mars), "_they seem at ease with themselves. What must that be like?_". His emotional state becomes more and more tempestuous as we move closer to the finale, until, rather suddenly (and rather unrealistically), he manages to steady himself in time for the _dénouement_. Pitt's performance is such that one viewer might praise it for shunning emotional grandstanding even as another might criticise it as too taciturn. Personally, I'm very much in the former camp; I think it's a terrifically modulated and minimalist performance in which Pitt uses the lack of outward emotion to inform the character's emotional beats. For example, Roy doesn't have a huge amount of dialogue (aside from that accursed VO) and for long stretches, he doesn't even have anyone to act against, so Pitt has to rely to a large extent on subtlety and nuanced gesture to convey emotion, which he does exceptionally well. Having said that, however, I can certainly understand why some might find the performance too cold – Roy is definitely not your typical Hollywood protagonist, and the problem is that if you're not impressed by Pitt, I'd imagine it must be very difficult to get into the film at all as he's in literally every scene.
Thematically, on the most basic of levels, _Ad Astra_ is the story of two men obsessed with their profession to the detriment of all else - a theme brought to perfection in the work of Michael Mann. Such a theme is not unusual in Gray's films, receiving its most thorough exploration in Percy Fawcett and Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) in _The Lost City of Z_. Additionally, like most of Gray's films, _Ad Astra_ is heavily androcentric, with neither Liv Tyler nor Ruth Negga (as the administer of the SpaceCom base on Mars) given much to do. In this sense, it's a study of masculinity, much as were its most obvious narrative influences – Joseph Conrad's _Heart of Darkness_ (1899) and Francis Ford Coppola's Conrad-adaptation, _Apocalypse Now_ (1979). In the reformulation of the narrative template, Roy is Charles Marlow (Cpt. Benjamin L. Willard in the film), whilst Clifford is Kurtz. In the original, Marlow, a merchant seaman, must locate revered ivory trader Kurtz, who has established himself as a demigod at a trading post on the Congo River. In the film, set at the tail-end of the Vietnam War, US Army captain Willard (Martin Sheen) must travel from South Vietnam into Cambodia to track down Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a once-legendary but now renegade Army Special Forces officer who, in all probability, has gone insane. The narrative parallels are obvious enough – a conflicted man sent to find a brilliant and pioneering man who has gone off-grid and who must be stopped, with the journey proving to be as much about travelling into the self as reaching a specific geographical destination. All three narratives also feature a roughly similar relationship between the two characters whereby the man searching deeply admires the man for whom he is searching.
Of course, _Ad Astra_ is also an esoteric science fiction film that looks at issues such as humanity's place in the galaxy and the search for intelligent life. An especially interesting theme that comes up when Roy is on the moon is commercialism and humanity's tendency to taint anything we touch. The commercialism of space travel is introduced when Roy takes a Virgin America shuttle to the moon, whilst an exterior wide shot of a lunar tourist base shows signs for, amongst others, Applebee's, DHL, and Subway. And since the moon is now so like Earth, thus it has become blighted by many of the same issues as Earth; crime, political division, materialism - the grandeur of space travel infected with the mundanities of Earth. This point is driven home by the references to territorial disputes and the problem of marauders, which is significant enough for Roy to need a military escort from the base to the _Cepheus_. And if all this wasn't enough to get the point across, in VO, we hear Roy lament how sickened Clifford would be with what the moon has become, pointing out it's now simply a "_re-creation of what we're running from on Earth. We're world eaters_". All of which helps create the impression of a future that's reasonably familiar and relatively plausible, given current technologies. Indeed, the lived-in nature of the film's environment is superbly realised by production designer Kevin Thompson (_Birth_; _The Adjustment Bureau_; _Okja_), whose discoloured sets and gritty textures are as far from the more glossy end of science fiction as you could imagine.
However, for all these positives, some significant problems detract from the whole. For me, there were three main flaws; 1) a poorly written and hugely distracting voiceover upon which Gray relies far too heavily, 2) three ludicrous action scenes that accomplish nothing and which feel like they're from another movie entirely, and 3) an anti-climactic and overly neat dénouement.
To look first at those three scenes, although they all occur in the first half of the film (with two in the first act), to describe them in any detail would constitute a spoiler, so I'll just give a very basic overview – the first is a chase scene involving moon buggies, the second is something more suited to Paul W.S. Anderson's hugely underrated _Event Horizon_ (1997), and the third is a shoot-out/knife fight, which is the most narratively justified of the three, but still a ridiculously over-the-top scene for a film of this nature. Imagine if in _2001_, instead of attempting to outwit HAL 9000, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) had pulled out a shotgun and engaged in a running battle with androids controlled by the AI. Ridiculous? Of course. The three scenes in _Ad Astra_ are only slightly less so. The third at least does have a narrative point insofar as it serves as the springboard for the entire second half of the movie, but it's still a monumentally silly way for Gray and Gross to advance the plot when there were far more organic ways to do so. The first two scenes, however, serve no such purpose – remove them from the film, and you'd have to change virtually nothing in the surrounding material - they're that disconnected and irrelevant, right out of the Rian Johnson school of narrative construction. They lead nowhere, reveal nothing about the character or his psychology, and have no connection to the esoteric themes found elsewhere. You know the French plantation scene in _Apocalypse Now Redux_? They make that scene look pivotal. I really can't over-emphasise how much they pulled me out of the film and detracted from the excellent work elsewhere.
As for the other two issues (the VO and the ending), obviously, I can't say much of anything about the finale without spoilers, so all I'll say is that I'm led to believe the ending as it exists now was a reshoot after test audiences responded poorly to the original (and far superior) ending – look it up online; the originally scripted ending made a lot more sense and was as thematically fascinating as it was existentially audacious (sheesh, test audiences, am I right?).
In terms of the VO, good lord, it's bad. I can count on one hand the number of times VO has been done well in film – there's the hard-boiled noir films of the 40s and 50s, the Michael Herr-written narration of _Apocalypse Now_, the work of Terrence Malick, Andrew Dominick's _The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford_ (2007), and...well, that's about it really. The VO is obviously intended to function in much the same way as Willard's in _Apocalypse Now_, providing some factual info, but also probing the soul of the character. However, the problem is that most of the time, the voice is describing something we can see plain as day on the screen. Pitt's performance is strong enough that the VO is unnecessary. You know the way the best films show rather than tell and the worst tell rather than show? _Ad Astra_ does both, and it's hugely distracting – you think "_I don't know why he saved my life_" ruins the end of the original version of Ridley Scott's _Blade Runner_ (1982)? I lost count of the number of times Roy's derivative interior monologue undermined the power of the moment. By the half-way stage of the film, I was sick of his cod-philosophical ramblings that aspire to portentousness, but end up coming across as someone trying and failing to imitate Malick.
With all that said, however, it's a testament to the story the film tells that despite these significant hurdles, I still enjoyed it. Pitt's performance is excellent, and Gray, who has yet to make a bad film, is his accomplished self. The storyline is interesting, and what it says about man's place in the universe, particularly whether or not we're alone, is unexpected and fascinating. The original ending was infinitely superior, the VO is a huge misstep, and the action detours are ludicrous, but this is still an entertaining movie. It's not a patch on _Lost City of Z_, but the manner in which Gray juxtaposes an intimate tone with such massive themes is really impressive. In essence, _Ad Astra_ is a fable about the importance of transient human connection, played out against the backdrop of the infinite, and despite some not insignificant problems, it's well worth checking out.