Since the creation of cinema, filmmakers have tried to capture the immense mystery of space. The question of what exists beyond our atmosphere haunts many, and it’s just as easy to imagine a hopeful answer as it is a terrifying one. There is a ticking clock attached to Earth, and if we desire to continue our reign as a species, we must find a way to survive in the void above.
James Gray‘s dramas have always looked inward, to the soul driving purpose, focusing mostly on human failings as they apply to the grand swings we dare to take. His last film (The Lost City of Z) was a major leap forward, to the grander canvas of human adventure, but his latest effort seemingly attempts to top that cinematic jump. Way back in 2017, he proclaimed Ad Astra to be the “most realistic depiction of space travel,” and as you’ll see in the IMAX trailer below, he’s not one to overstate.
The film revolves around a planetary disaster that may (i.e., most certainly) have ties to a lost extraterrestrial mission to Neptune. The American government suspects that missing astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is responsible for catastrophic experiments in deep space, and they’re sending his son Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) to hunt him down. From the Earth to the Moon to Mars and beyond, McBride traverses space to solve the mystery, save the planet, and heal a great wound festering within his family.
The previous trailer offered plenty of visual marvels, and now that we’re a little closer to the September 20th release date, the marketing department feels more comfortable expanding on the mystery at the core of the story. Let’s see if we can decipher a few more details as we go Shot by Shot with Gray’s space odyssey.
Pitt’s narration centers their relationship, “I do what I do because of my dad.” Like father, like son. Roy walks through an off-world vessel (more on that in a second), beaming with confidence. He’s devoted his life to the expansion of the human race; a cowboy on the final frontier.
We see a classified folder splayed out on a table, several photos of Clifford scattered across the table. “He gave his life for the pursuit of knowledge,” Roy continues. There is no higher calling in their family. The mission goes before life, love, and children. Or, that’s what he was raised to believe. If that pursuit is proven to be a lie than what purpose has Clifford devoted his life towards? A great pain awaits.
A classic press conference scene featuring Pitt in the same chair where astronauts like Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Sally Ride have sat. This shot comes before that classified folder has been splayed before him. He is a man of optimism. A hero born for propaganda. He points skywards and directs our fantasies, “Because up there is where our story is going to be told.”
Earth sits in the void of space. In the grand scheme of existence, we are but a speck. Surely, something else must exist outside of our reach. We must leave our tiny planet; we must find our future in the infinite black.
A shot of the space elevator seen in the first trailer. The world of Ad Astra is set in our near future, offering slight advances in current technology. This blend of fantasy and possibility is what makes films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar spark our synapses. A space elevator works as a tether between Earth and a geosynchronous tower where ships could dock, and prepare for further exploration. Similar structures have appeared in numerous science-fiction stories including Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise, Robert Heinlein’s Friday, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.
Roy steps outside of the space elevator and descends a ladder. This shot right here is why you see the film in IMAX. “This is a top-secret psychological evaluation,” says an offscreen computer voice. “Please describe your emotional state.” We’ll speak for Roy: we feel nauseous. We spy with our little eye, another high-altitude craft flying below his position. Look to the upper right of his backpack.