AD ASTRA – A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF SCI FI

SHORT TAKE:

Journey by a son in search of his father, set in space.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens minimum for some language but mostly scenes of violence and the resulting dangers one might expect in tackling hard space. There is no sexual content.

LONG TAKE:

Ad Astra (meaning “to the stars”) directed by James Gray, one of the writers, is a very interesting movie but not about what you might think. Ad Astra could have taken place as a western, underwater, in a haunted abandoned funhouse, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in any normal day of a big city, or climbing a mountain. The writers James Gray and Ethan Gross chose to place this well told story in space and it is as good a backdrop as any of the others would have been. Combining allegory with pragmatic and brutal realism, Ad Astra plays out more like the Greek epic of discovery, The Odyssey or the Christian parable Pilgrim’s Progress, than a conventional science fiction story. Gray, writer/director, himself has compared his story to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

SPOILERS – BUT MINOR AND OBLIQUELY AS I CAN

The story is about Roy McBride, a top-flight astronaut, played by Brad Pitt (most recently in the wonderful role of a protective stuntman in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), whose father, Clifford, disappeared 16 years before. Roy’s father played by Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, The Fugitive, Captain America) is a brilliant scientist who went in search of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, then fell off the radar after leaving Saturn.

A series of catastrophic electronic storms have recently begun to devastate Earth. The Surges, as they are referred to, seem to be emanating from Neptune, and are suspected to be linked to Clifford’s disappearance. Roy is sent out to investigate with his father’s old partner, Thomas Pruitt, played by acting veteran Donald Sutherland.

As an aside, I am a big fan of Donald Sutherland. Sutherland’s career dates back almost six decades. Playing opposite the likes of Robert Duvall, Helen Mirren, Orson Welles, Gene Wilder, and Julie Christie, his career includes an incredibly eclectic collection of almost two hundred entries, ranging from comic to horror to personal drama. His resume includes everything from classics like Hamlet and Pride and Prejudice, to monster movies like the bad  Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and the brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers, military black comedies like M.A.S.H. and Kelly’s Heroes, deeply emotional personal dramas like Ordinary People, the modern dystopian franchise The Hunger Games, screwball comedies like Start The Revolution Without Me, straight war movies like The Dirty Dozen and Eye of The Needle, and avant garde suspense like Don’t Look Now – the list goes on and on, and it was a pleasure to see him again even in a small character part.

Rounding out the cast is Ruth Negga (the prickly – in more ways than one – antagonist in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Helen Santos, an ally who appears, like a messenger from a Greek myth, to provide Roy information he needs to urge him along his quest. Another character who hands Roy along like a baton is Colonel Levant played by Sean Blakemore. Liv Tyler (Lord of the Rings, Armageddon – so not Tyler’s first rodeo as a character enamored of a space cowboy) is Eve (to Roy’s Adam? – perhaps representing all mankind and their errors) the girl Roy leaves behind as Roy seems compelled as a lemming, without his father’s guidance, to repeat his father’s mistakes.

However, Ad Astra is not really about the search for Roy’s father, but ultimately an insightful, honest and frank inner journey undertaken by Roy to conquer the demons left behind by Clifford’s abandonment of Roy’s family.

Modern culture tries to expunge the need for a father in the home. Ad Astra highlights, at least in part, the fallacy of this destructive philosophy.

The tone of the film reminds me of, and owes a lot to, Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking but ethereally distant 2001: A Space Odyssey, which created a mythology about mankind’s leaps of progress. In contrast, Ad Astra is relatable, in that it is told from the intimate point of view of one man’s personal evolution. The pace of Ad Astra is very slow and deliberate, arguably even sometimes dull. But such adagio of movement is necessary for the contemplatively atmosphere necessary for this pensive tale.

The events that transpire during the course of the film are anything but boring. The theme of obstacles structure the story and manifest in every way you can imagine: verbal, bureaucratic, intentionally hostile, the indifference of nature, clandestine, emotional, instinctive brutality, and the simple fact of the mind-numbingly immense distances required to complete Roy’s journey.

The cinematography is magnificent. The depiction of the outer planets is stunning and awe-inspiring and brilliantly conveys the overwhelming majestic size of space itself, underscoring the enormity of the pilgrimage that Roy undertakes.

And pilgrimage Roy’s trip truly is. A pilgrimage of discovery. The pilgrim nature of Roy’s quest is underscored by the occasional but respectful and deliberate references to traditional Christian theology and belief. The spiritual nature of Roy’s expedition is also demonstrated by the way the writers strip Roy, piece by piece, of his armor plating – literally and figuratively, physically and emotionally – until he must confront his destiny as any questing knight must – face to face and alone. Roy’s progress is cleverly documented by way of periodic psychological tests he must take and pass in order to continue his journey. This serves as both a practical plot device as well as a metaphysical manifestation of Roy’s inner progress.

The music by Max Richter is both triumphal and eerily beautiful, contributing to the contemplative feel of this mystery.

Ad Astra is not for everyone. It’s not properly a science fiction story, though it is set in a pragmatic future vision of human-conquering space. But it is far more violent than the average audience for a movie which primarily deals with inner analysis.

So go see Ad Astra if you are of the right age and want to see a thoughtful, meditative but dangerous odyssey. But go without any preconceived notions, for it is not the kind of science fiction movie you might expect, but approach it as you might a friend mulling over a retreat inspired epiphany which he wants to share.

PASSENGERS – AN ALLEGORY FOR MARRIAGE

 
When my husband and I had been married for 15 years we volunteered to go through an Engaged Encounter Counseling training session. During that period of time we learned things about each other that we did not know! For example, his favorite color is blue. I thought it was tan. He always WEARS tan. Who knew?!
The process also reminded me about the dating/mating process. The early years when you become irresistably attracted. Then you wonder if you should take the risk of being a couple. After a time, as you consider you may be spending the rest of your life with this person – have I done the right thing? The infatuation. The sexual attraction. The sharing and adventure. The fun. And then you find out things maybe you hadn’t realized about the other. You fight. Maybe the fight seems to herald in the end of the relationship. But at some point you realize you would much prefer to journey through life WITH this person than without them – warts and all.
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt star in Columbia Pictures’ PASSENGERS.
Perhaps it takes a personal crisis. Perhaps there is a moment when you see the resilient admirable core at the center of their being – the stuff that, even unknowingly, attracted you to them to begin with. Their morality. Their love of life. Their sense of fun….their courage in the face of life’s adversity. Something to which you can cling during the dangers and storms of life.
SPOILERS
In short, I have just synopsized Passengers. This movie is a brilliant allegory about just such a meeting, discernment, set of crises, resolution, determination and resolve that describe the stages of coming together in a marriage – not just the wedding, but truly the union of two people through thick and thin who commit selflessly to each other to face the life and death trials the world – or space – can bring.

Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) are strangers. Passengers on a deep space colony ship whose 5,000 colonists and 100+ crew are put into hibernation for the length of a 120 year trip. 32 years into the journey the ship has an unexpected, unplanned run in with a comet storm which causes damage which triggers the opening of Jim’s pod. It also causes other damage which will not be fully noticed for another 2 years.  Jim finds himself alone on a 1,000 foot luxury cruise ship with every amenity except companionship. There is the quirky addition of an android bartender


(Michael Sheen) but that’s it. He spends much of his time for the first few months: trying to contact Earth (round trip answer to even his cry for help would take 55 years), accessing the bridge (NOTHING short of a proper access code will get him entry despite the fact he is a mechanical engineer), reading manuals, trying to reactivate his hibernation pod. Finally he resigns himself to at least enjoying the amenities on the ship but after another few months he begins the slow descent into madness. He ceases to care even about shaving or dressing and finally is inches away from suicide when he randomly, if not Providentially comes across Aurora’s pod. He checks out her video profile and the books she has written and falls in love with her humor, her writing and ultimately…her. He struggles for months with the idea of manually opening her pod – even consulting Arthur, but his desperation is too great and he does what he realizes is the unthinkable – he awakens Aurora 87 years too early.

And so the courtship begins. The details of how the potential tragedy plays out, what her reaction is when she finds out what Jim has done, the reason why Jim's pod opened to begin with, and the resolution to their relationship I will leave to your watching of this amazing film.
Suffice it to say that I was captivated by the special effects, delighted by the story and impressed with the acting of two Robinson Crusoes and their bartender “Friday”. Pratt and Lawrence were terrific and Sheen endearing.
But it was my husband who recognized the analogy to marriage – how two people, against odds, found each other. That despite the hundreds of people around them it was up to ONLY the two of them to make a life for themselves, to overcome seemingly overwhelming obstacles and to triumph by self sacrificing to and for each other, recognizing their union may require foregoing other possible choices, binding themselves only to each other, and spending the rest of their lives making a life with each other. The perfect analogy of a courtship and marriage.
My only regret is that religion was sanitized out of the equation. There were Biblical elements: Jim willing to lay down his life for Aurora. Aurora willing to forgive Jim completely and his life becoming her life. They ultimately chose to cleave to each other, despite the fact Aurora was provided, by Jim, with another option. But there were no visits to a chapel, no praying to God in what was emotional extremity for Jim. No acknowledgement of the Hand of God and His Providence in their miraculously timed awakenings, finding each other or escape from mortal peril. And that’s a shame. Because with inclusion of the recogniztion of God this marital analogy would have been raised to the level of a sacramental union. There was even a clergy of sorts in the form of a Senior crewman (Lawrence Fishburne), who stood in the way of Captain for a time and who – before his demise – gave his “blessing” to them.
Despite this lack Passengers is a lovely, inspirational movie about the adventure of two people who bond for life…and who bond FOR life.