“Ad Astra” is a rare cinematic experience that simultaneously captures the grandeur and awe of the universe, while proudly showcasing the wonders of mankind. There’s an overwhelming sense of optimism while exploring the galaxy, a belief that there’s someone out there that shares our sense of wonder and love of exploring and wants to share that as much as we do, not unlike most “Star Trek” series.
The visuals push these beliefs even further, from the opening shot of our own galaxy panning down to our blue marble, to the vibrant colors of our solar system. “Ad Astra” goes the same route as “2001: A Space Odyssey” by capturing how different yet majestic space can be, especially in contrast to our ships and scope. The film also takes time to showcase just how much humankind has evolved, with commercial flights to the moon and a radio tower that reaches up past Earth’s atmosphere to contact alien races. Practical progress is both respectful and grand, and always cinematic.
But while “Ad Astra” looks and feels like a spiritual successor to “2001,” there’s another classic film that it parallels even more – “Apocalypse Now.”
The film follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a major in the U.S. Space Command, following a series of electrical storms that are happening more frequently and threaten all life on the planet. His superiors believe they’ve found the source of the storms – a long forgotten spaceship on the outer edge of Neptune, led by Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). The superiors lost contact with his father nearly 20 years ago and now believe he’s gone insane and now threatens all life if he can’t be stopped. Roy is tasked with contacting him and eventually doing whatever it takes to stop his father before it’s too late.
Sound familiar? Just replace the Vietnam War with space, and you’ve practically got the same plot.
If that weren’t enough, Roy provides a narration throughout the film, recounting everything from his relationship with his father to his constantly changing feelings on his superiors and what the human race has accomplished in space, very much like Martin Sheen’s narration throughout Francis Ford Coppola’s movie. There are many small vignettes scattered throughout the film, small journeys to show the size and scope of what we do out in space, especially when Roy reached other stations on the moon and Mars, or even traveling between planets.
Yet the similarities to “Apocalypse Now” are never overt or on-the-nose. The style of the story feeds perfectly into the world building and progression of Roy’s frustration with the world, his father and himself. While “Apocalypse Now” is depressingly negative and horrific, “Ad Astra” is overwhelming optimistic about what we will accomplish and that we’ll share this knowledge with the universe. There’s a deep emotional love for who we are and that our existence is more than we’ll ever believe.
I would describe “Ad Astra” as if “Star Trek” wanted to retell “Apocalypse Now” – mysterious, but surprisingly uplifting, wondrous without ever losing its human edge, and always deeply personal. Add in some aesthetic choices from “2001,” especially its ideas of how we’d act and behave once space travel is common enough for everyone to do it, and you’ve got the best sci-fi movie since “Gravity.”
Final Grade: A