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Revisiting AD ASTRA

Alexander Wallace reaches for answers.
Near-future science fiction is oftentimes a hard sell to the general public. It’s not for nothing that the biggest names in science fiction film and television often border on fantasy; they sit firmly in the tradition of pulp literature that has been later dubbed ‘space opera.’ This includes Star Wars, Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy (and more generally the spacebound portions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). But on occasion you will get a good near-future science fiction film, one that shows how this particular subgenre has much to yet to say.

In 2019, that film was Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and starring Brad Pitt in the leading role and Tommy Lee Jones as a major secondary character: Brad Pitt’s father. This film is no space opera based solely on action and on strange alien environments; no, Ad Astra is a film about family, and explores that very well in the relationship between these two characters. The plot kicks off when the father is lost in the orbit of Neptune while on an expedition, and the son is sent to lead the mission to rescue him. It is an intensely human story when so much science fiction of this nature tends to neglect that aspect.
I said that this film does not rely much on alien environments, instead the settings that Ad Astra chooses to emphasize are very human ones. All the beautifully rendered science fiction environments are those built by people in the most hostile environments they have yet faced. But in these colonies, you are reminded ever so much of the fact that these were built by people with all their follies and foibles.

Take the film’s portrayal of the Moon, now colonized in a manner that reminds the science fiction reader of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Andy Weir’s Artemis or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon. This is a city of cramped bases and space suits when venturing off said bases. When Pitt’s character arrives on Earth’s only satellite, he is confronted by a scene out of any major city’s myriad subway stations: winding corridors, bustling crowds, and an overwhelming panoply of advertisements. That station is gaudy and suffused with greed, reminding us that the human lust for profit would follow us into the stars (Elon Musk ought to take note). The Moon is also the site of the film’s most compelling action sequence, which likewise highlights the preponderance for self-enrichment.
But Ad Astra does not only stop on the Moon whilst on the way to Neptune; rather, Gray has also created a fully realized Mars colony. My most immediate point of comparison for the science fiction reader is the earlier phases of settlement in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, but without the utopian drive for perfection that characterizes the colonists in that masterwork. Here, you deal a good bit with the military presence on Mars, and it is in that regard that Gray showcases his attention to detail. It’s a small thing, but it’s immediately noticeable: his officers are not wearing the standard blue or gray of science fiction militaires, but rather a red camouflage pattern that fits perfectly with the arid Martian wastes. As I said, it’s small, but it’s a telling thing about this film.

As I said, this is a very human-centric film. It is one that asks why, exactly, human beings go into space. It also asks about the psychological toll of being someone who regularly risks their life traversing environments that human beings were simply not meant to go to. This is put most clearly in the Tommy Lee Jones’ character who has begun to go more than a little bit mad in orbit around the solar system’s other blue sphere (although one of gas and not of water).
Ad Astra took the template set by Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now and brought it splendidly into the future. It reminds me strongly of how Stephen Baxter writes: great regard for science and plausibility, but never forgetting the fact that storytelling is fundamentally about people and what they do. Ad Astra is a shining example of how to tell stories in the future, and those of us who write and make films ought to take many notes.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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