AD ASTRA: a meditative journey up river to hope and conflict

Many critics have boiled down Ad Astra, James Gray’s ambitious space opera, to the phrase “Apocalypse Now… in space!”, and while this is hard to refute, Ad Astra feels as much Gray’s commentary on the difficult no man’s land between Gen X and Gen Y and the Baby Boomer generations.

Our protagonist, Brad Pitt’s quiet and contemplative astronaut Roy McBride, could have been played by a man in his 30’s. In some ways, he was; Pitt might be in his mid-50’s but his Peter Pan looks, while not ageless, are certainly allowing Pitt to play characters who ostensibly could be younger. This feels important to Ad Astra in how deep rooted the film is in how Roy exists in the shadow of his father, Tommy Lee Jones’ absent H. Clifford McBride, a NASA legend on the lines of Neil Armstrong who vanished on the Lima Project three decades ago – an ambitious attempt to reach the edge of the solar system and contact alien intelligence. Clifford has not just been mythologised by humanity but also by Roy, who is haunted by the terrifying question of whether, having followed in his father’s career footsteps, he will end up becoming a man who Roy steadily comes to realise was not the heroic bastion of humanity’s progress everyone believes.

“I do what I do because of my Dad” Roy states as he is placed on a literal quest to find not just his father but his father’s legacy. In this, you can see the Apocalypse Now parallels, moreover you can see Gray’s admitted inspiration—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—in the journey Roy, much like Francis Ford Coppola’s Captain Willard, takes ‘up river’ on the search of a legend. Much like Willard, Roy externalises his thoughts via inner monologue, allowing his anxieties and concerns and existential turmoil to spill out as he travels his river, in this case the solar system. As in Apocalypse Now, or indeed Heart of Darkness, Ad Astra is less about the hardships of the difficult journey using near future spacecraft but Roy’s internal voyage of reflection, discovery and almost nihilistic destiny. Clifford becomes his darker id. Roy’s quest is one to destroy his own demon.

This is where Ad Astra crosses over from being simply a mythological quest into something else entirely. It becomes a generational battle.

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Forget the Past: MEN IN BLACK and Neutralising History

If we are great at one thing as a collective human species, it is forgetting our own history, often by choice.

It is easy to forget how Men in Black, one of the breeziest, cheeriest examples of B-movie science-fiction updated for a big-budget late-1990’s audience is built on one of the darkest and more sinister aspects of American folklore, urban myth and conspiracy theory. If you’re over 35, chances are you fondly recall the days when Will Smith was at his jaunty, Fresh Prince-coasting heyday as one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, laying down hugely popular and catchy rap tunes to fun, explosive tentpole movies or, as in Independence Day, greeting an alien invader with a right hook and a pithy “Welcome to Earth!”. Building a franchise around Smith as the hip, young, cool streetwise guy who becomes a ‘galaxy defending’, super slick government agent made a world of sense, and serves as the perfect way to cloak how disturbing the legend and myth behind it all is.

In reality, the legend of the ‘men in black’ is one of the most pervasive and ongoing representations of an oppressive, repressive American underbelly which wants us to forget the sins of their forefathers.

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