I’m a sci-fi fan, particularly of films that predict a future earth that is neither dystopia nor wasteland. I once enthusiastically partook of apocalyptic movies and books, but now, for some reason, not so much. I prefer visions of a human race that made it, even if they’ve still got serious problems. I’m talking the Star Trek franchise, Her, Moon, Solaris, The Martian, Minority Report, even Westworld.
We recently took in the 2019 Brad Pitt vehicle Ad Astra, which purports to take place in “the near future.” Judging from the movie’s depiction of everyday tech, and particularly considering the 2020 space program, I will venture Ad Astra’s timeframe is either the last decade of this century, or the dawning of the next one. If you want to call that “near,” fine.
Most of the visually beautiful and original Ad Astra follows major Roy McBride (Pitt), as he travels from earth, to the moon, to Mars, and ultimately to Neptune on a mission to find his brilliant scientist father (Tommy Lee Jones, always fabulous) who may or may not be either dead or crazy. There’s a distinct Heart of Darkness vibe to the endeavor.
This narrative is bookended by scenes on earth. Thankfully, she is still green, and apparently doing well enough to offer moon tourism, a longstanding international Mars colony, and, as mentioned, the technology to send a decades-long, manned mission to Neptune, and a search-and-rescue follow-up.
One of writer-director James Gray’s stated goals was to create a more “realistic” rendering of what a future space program might look like. It’s kind of clunky and unglamorous, even with the fascinating gadgetry and such. On a commercial flight to the moon, McBride asks for a pillow and blanket, and the flight attendant charges him $150. (Not too far off.) Perhaps my favorite aspect was the concept that everyone in space must submit to frequent routine psych evaluations given via computer. (If you fail, you’re exiled to a “comfort room.”) Because I’m betting the human psyche is more tied to earth than we know.
But even more than the spacecraft situations, the moon and Mars colonies, and the dazzling tech, I really wanted to know what the earth of Ad Astra looks like, in detail. Just as I’m much more interested in Star Trek-era earth than the aliens they fight.
How did the earthlings of Ad Astra or any of the aforementioned deal with the warming planet, the rising sea levels? Viruses? Sectarian conflict? Worldwide poverty, uneducated women, racism? Food? How do folks get around? Surely not with fossil fuel. Is there a middle class again? Social media? (There seems to be none in Ad Astra, at least among the astronauts.) What’s the economy like? Where do people work? (In Ad Astra, criminally underused Liv Tyler plays Pitt’s wife. We never find out if she has a job. We just know she and Pitt are on the rocks because he’s a sad, if beautiful, workaholic.)
When and how did earth citizens learn to be proper stewards of our planet? How, exactly, did that come about? What story motivated this lifesaving, planet-saving action?
In one of the few earth scenes in Ad Astra, McBride is sitting in a café, stirring what looks like a cup of black coffee in a simple ceramic cup. To which I say, we’ll still have that? For my descendants’ sake, I sure hope so. A simple pleasure enjoyed on a healthy planet that somehow not only survived, but thrived. Who is the hero who made that possible? What’s their story? Details, please.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.