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All The Write Moves: 'Ad Astra'

October 7, 2019
4 min read time

Deliberate, meditative and quiet, Ad Astra joins a noble group of cerebral sci-fi films, many of which are indebted to Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. At their best, films of this type juxtapose questions about human nature with even larger questions about the position that homo sapiens occupy in the universe.

Written by James Gray (who also directed) and Ethan Gross, Ad Astra specifically contemplates the idea of connection on both cosmic and intimate levels. There’s a lot to unpack from Ad Astra (the title of which is Latin for “the stars”), even though the film is straightforward on a structural level, borrowing the Hearts of Darkness/Apocalypse Now model of a quest to find someone who has gone mad in the wilderness. Gray and Gross employ several efficient screenwriting techniques to establish character and story points. They also honor the heady tradition to which Ad Astra belongs by fusing, to the utmost degree possible, emotional and intellectual aspects of their narrative.

For writers who long to create elevated stories that blend metaphysical considerations with grounded human interactions, Ad Astra offers a number of teachable moments. What’s more, because Gray (in his capacity as director) employs his customary slow pace, watching the film provides ample opportunities to linger on moments in order to study what makes them work.

States of mind

One of the script’s most useful devices gets introduced early, right after Gray and Gross establish that the story takes place in a near future with advanced technology. Veteran astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) survives a harrowing incident, then takes a brief psychiatric examination administered by a computer that reads data from a probe affixed to Roy’s neck.

Externally, Roy passes the test with little effort because of his ability to remain calm during stressful situations. Internally, his situation is more complicated, because a flashback during the examination reveals that Roy’s wife recently left him. Right away we have a sense of this man — suited for danger and leadership, but also at risk of consequences from emotional compartmentalization.

Gray and Gross return to the device of the psychiatric evaluations repeatedly throughout Ad Astra, and the device works remarkably well. Once this story mechanism is put in place, it never needs to be set up again, so each time Gray and Gross repeat the evaluation trope, it does its work quickly. Furthermore, the device allows them to establish a pattern — Roy is calm under pressure until he isn’t, at which point we instinctively realize the story has entered a new phase.

The device has other benefits. Gray and Gross marry Roy’s voiceover to the evaluations, demonstrating that the character’s process of introspection doesn’t end when his tests conclude. He’s in a constant state of self-evaluation. Merging voiceover to the idea of Roy’s psychological state allows Gray and Gross to energize scenes of Roy alone — particularly when he’s traveling long distance through space. We recognize that he’s never truly isolated, because the feelings and memories he discusses during evaluations haunt him all the time.

Takeaway: When writing a withdrawn character, create tools that allow viewers to look inside the character’s mind.

Space junk

The first sequence of Ad Astra crystallizes one of the film’s secondary themes. We first encounter Roy donning a space suit and venturing toward a door, creating the expectation that he’s about to enter a capsule for launch preparation. Instead, he passes through the door and enters outer space — sort of. He stands atop a gigantic antenna that stretches from Earth’s surface into the atmosphere. This surprising image tells viewers to expect the unexpected from Ad Astra. It also remarks upon humankind’s tendency to clutter the natural world.

Later in the picture, this theme comes into sharper focus when Roy, as part of a secret government mission, takes a commercial flight to the moon. In the near-future circumstances of Ad Astra, traveling to the lunar surface resembles today’s air travel, right down to the presence of a commercialized airport on the moon. Roy’s voiceover conveys disdain for this situation, even though he recognizes his stop on the moon as a necessary phase of his mission.

The mission, we learn, involves traveling close to the solar system’s outer edge. Somewhere inside a man-made facility orbiting the planet Neptune, Roy’s legendary father, astronaut/scientist H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), may or may not be alive, and may or may not be responsible for sending electronic pulses that have caused deadly havoc on Earth.

Taken together, all of these images amplify the theme of man polluting the environment, but they also tether the notion of pollution to the notion of progress. The antenna, no matter how unsightly, facilitates rapid communication over the long distances of outer space. Similarly, the airport on the moon provides a jumping-off point for ventures beyond Earth’s immediate neighborhood. And the facility orbiting Neptune ostensibly serves an idealistic function — attempting to find and communicate with intelligent life beyond our solar system.

By way of this intricate image system, Gray and Gross raise important questions about the cost/benefit ratio of humankind’s use of tools to explore (and master) the universe. These questions may seem secondary to the film’s primary focus, but they are not, as will be explained shortly.

Takeaway: Embedding secondary themes into a story can deepen the impact of the story’s primary theme.

Sticking the landing

For all of its virtues — those found in the script as well as Pitt’s soulful performance and the glorious special effects — Ad Astra has a significant third-act problem. The first and second acts are all prelude, as per the aforementioned Hearts of Darkness/Apocalypse Now model, so the efficacy of the film hinges on how much it delivers once Roy reaches the facility orbiting Neptune. Without spoiling any plot elements, suffice it to say that the denouement underwhelms. Still, writers can derive useful lessons from the intentions of the third act, if not necessarily the execution.

Throughout the film, we learn about Roy’s difficult relationship with his father, who has been lost in space for nearly two decades. Initially, Roy believes that his father died a hero while performing important space exploration. In voiceover, he explicitly states how he has learned to sequester anguish, and that his practice of walling off emotions led to the dissolution of his marriage. Therefore, once Roy discovers that his father might be alive, he senses an opportunity for closure — and in that opportunity, a possible means of releasing all that he has suppressed.

The greatest ambition of Ad Astra is the way that Gray and Gross merge Roy’s journey with the concept of exploration. In the same manner that Roy wants to grow beyond his emotional limitations, humankind, as personified by Roy’s father, wants to learn what exists beyond our earthbound experience. Screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan attempted something similar with their 2014 epic Interstellar, which Christopher directed. As happened with Interstellar, however, Ad Astra’s reach exceeds its grasp.

The irony is that in trying to do too much, both films light a path toward some future film that reaches the destination Ad Astra and Interstellar could not. Both films strive to integrate hot-blooded emotion into the pure intellectualism of 2001. Clearly, this is easier said than done. Nonetheless, like explorers who continue venturing into the unknown even after tragedies mar early efforts, filmmakers who travel to outer space as a means of exploring inner space pursue a worthwhile reward — nothing less than a personal interpretation of the meaning of life.

In that context, maligning the murky conclusion of Ad Astra is fair but, to a certain degree, ungallant. The movie charts new areas of imagination, continuing the work of its thematic predecessors, and in so doing, Ad Astra offers guideposts for subsequent filmmakers bold enough to resume the journey.

Takeaway: Exploring unknown cinematic terrain is a high-risk/high-reward proposition.

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