I’m sorry I missed writer-director James Gray’s sweeping sci-fi thriller “Ad Astra” — Latin for “To the Stars” — when it was in theaters last fall. I finally caught it over the holidays on demand, and found it stunning. There is a grandeur to this film that is no doubt best conveyed on the big screen.
I mention it here not because it’s a cinematic tour de force — it is — but because I see it as a warning of what could become of us soon enough.
Gray is a master of his craft, having previously produced such exceptional films as “We Own the Night” (2007) and “Lost City of Z” (2016), two of my favorites. His films are cerebral and cinematically flawless — and hardly commercial. Despite mega-star Brad Pitt playing the lead in “Ad Astra,” the film took in only $50 million in the U.S. and Canada, and another $77 million in other markets, for a total box office take of $127.2 million. The film cost $80 million to produce, so it wasn’t a blockbuster.
If only it had been. It’s an important film, raising the question, is a future in space what we truly desire for our children and grandchildren?
“Ad Astra” is set in the “near future.” Maj. Roy McBride (Pitt), a decorated astronaut, is called away from Earth to Mars by Space Command (presumably a successor of NASA) to make radio contact with his insane father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who is floating on a spaceship somewhere in the far reaches of our solar system, beaming out antimatter waves that are disrupting our electrical systems with massive power surges. It’s unclear whether he’s doing so purposely. Sounds far-fetched, I know, but suspend your disbelief and you begin to see the film’s deeper message.
Roy McBride was abandoned by his father 30 years earlier, when he was 16, in favor of space exploration. Roy, who was left to attend to his ailing mother, is best described as emotionally damaged. He broods a lot.
Apparently, the only place with an antenna powerful enough to reach the outer regions of the solar system is a secret base on Mars. McBride must first fly a commercial airliner to the moon before heading off to the red planet. He lands on the moon to find a port that resembles a mall, replete with a Virgin Atlantic outlet, DHL, Applebee’s and Subway. McBride ruminates on how disappointed his father — an MIT-trained scientist bent on proving the existence of extraterrestrial life — would be in the commercialization of space.
When we began the quest for space in the 1960s, we told ourselves that it was all for science. We marveled, and still marvel, at the courage and fortitude — the “right stuff” — of the early astronauts who escaped Earth’s gravity and hurtled to the moon and back. Theirs was a necessary mission, we said, carried out to further humanity, which was — and is — rapidly outgrowing Earth. The space race between the U.S. and Soviet Union might have been born out of the prosaic fear that one side or the other would dominate the moon, but we believed in the nobility — the greater good — of our cause.
Now, 50 years later, there is the very real possibility of commercial space travel — that is, the commercialization of space. Three private companies — Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic — are racing to capture the emerging space tourism industry, which promises to send humans on regular suborbital flights 62 miles above the Earth. Meanwhile, NASA officials hope to sometime soon construct a lunar outpost that could be used to blast the first astronauts to Mars, perhaps as early as the 2030s.
If we go there, the venture will likely be public-private partnership between the federal agency and one or all of the major private space-flight companies. Blue Origin, whose motto is “Gradatim Ferociter” — Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously” — sees millions of people living in space. When exactly that might happen is anyone’s guess — sometime in the “near future,” perhaps.
“Ad Astra” speaks to the futility of such an endeavor. Space, viewed from Earth, is a seemingly beautiful place. The stars, all perfect light beams, are abundant in the night sky. We are drawn to them, believing a better future lies somewhere out there. We imagine that we might construct a brave new world beyond our pale blue planet.
Clifford McBride is a metaphor for the madness that is space exploration. Mars, his son finds, is a desolate place, devoid of any sense of humanity. As he travels further into the solar system in search of his father, there is only emptiness — nothingness. The outer planets and their moons might make pretty pictures in a planetarium slide show, but they are lifeless, uninhabitable worlds.
There is only one place where humanity belongs — Earth — Roy McBride learns. It is a lesson that we should all heed.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.