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Ad Astra: alone in an empty universe?

Last week, I went to see the new Sci-Fi movie, “Ad Astra”, starring Brad Pitt, as astronaut Roy McBride.


Steve Latham


The film borrows from the filmography of Terence Malick, in particular Tree of life”, in which Brad Pitt also acted: dreamy sequences, meditations on life, with an accompanying monologue.

The plot is reminiscent of Apocalypse now“, with the hero searching for a mysterious figure who has gone rogue. In this case, McBride is pursuing his own father, research scientist and astronaut, missing for many years. As such, the picture follows the tropes of psycho-drama, through the healing of the damaged relationship between adult son and distant father.

Ad Astra, like several recent movies, also returns to the genre of hard SF, in contrast to the whimsical, escapist, popularity of fantasy films.

“First man” has Ryan Gosling in the star role, as first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong; and retells the tale of this era-making adventure.

It features the technological side of space exploration, and highlights the flimsy nature of the rockets, which took humanity to the moon, and which today appear so primitive, with our hi-tech computers.

Other pictures are more straightforwardly fiction, but building on how we can imagine present-day scientific knowledge developing.

Sara Bullock displays a masterclass in acting with Gravity, where the whole plot centres on her character, and she appears in most shots. Marooned in orbit, after an accident, and helped along by a ghostly apparition of George Clooney, she succeeds eventually in returning to earth. The CGI special effects are excellent.

Arrival features one of the other few woman SF actors, Amy Adams; although she and Bullock still exemplify female stereotypes of nerdy, inexperienced, outsiders – yet who finally overcome opposition.

This, and Interstellar, also include ‘contact’; although instead of hostile invasions, here the ‘other’ is benign.

For Arrival“, it’s aliens; in Interstellar”, more ambiguously, probably a future-evolved humanity.

Yet both posit human beings unable to resolve their political and ecological problems. Thus depoliticized, we require rescue instead by outside interventions, a deus ex machina.

Moreover, both pictures also mess about with time, as deliverance comes through time-shifts, which disturb earthly understandings of temporality.

In addition, through these films, the emptiness of space is emphasized, together with the isolation and loneliness of the human explorers.

However, Ad Astra also communicates a metaphysical aloneness. The father’s search for extra-terrestrial life has ended in failure, which he can’t accept.

Pitt’s character has to shout at him, “We’re on our own”. There are no aliens. Contentment can only lie in returning to our earthly home, the only place in the universe where there is life.

Here, happiness, for McBride, rests on recovering the relationship with his wife, that he has previously neglected.

And finally, despite many references to God and religion in the movie, its conclusion is that we are also alone spiritually.

With no God, salvation lies in the personal, and small scale. The question is whether we can live with being alone in an empty cosmos?

(Photos: Pixabay)

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