AD ASTRA - a sci-fi thriller set in the future




Commander Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) in the psychological control


AD ASTRA stars Brad Pitt as an elite astronaut who travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.

Directed by James Gray from a screenplay by Gray and his long-time associate Ethan Gross, AD ASTRA also stars Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, Academy Award nominee Ruth Negga; Liv Tyler and Donald Sutherland.



Per aspera ad astra: Latin for “Through hardship to the stars.” In the future, astronaut Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is leading a team building the world’s largest antenna, designed to locate advanced alien life, when a sudden power surge almost costs him his life.

This incident is the latest in a long line of recent catastrophes taking place on Earth, including fires and plane crashes, caused by electrical surges that have been happening due to radioactive bursts. U.S. intelligence believes that these bursts are a result of cosmic rays emanating from explosions that happened near Neptune from The Lima Project, a long-ago mission whose ship disappeared in deep space 16 years after launching.

Director´James Gray explains, “The idea of the Lima Project was that they would be far from the Sun so its magnetic field would not upset any instrumentation and they would be able to look with great accuracy at the reachable Universe and check for all kinds of planets. The drive was to see if they could find signs of intelligent life.”

The commander of the Project was Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary astronaut who’s been missing for 16 years. Even though Roy hasn’t seen him since he was 16 years old, Roy has always idolized him, while inheriting his incredible tolerance for risk and his belief that the answers to all of life’s physical and metaphysical riddles lie in deep space. But Clifford had been a distant parent and husband and his neglect helped make Roy solitary and remote, closed off from relationships, repressing all emotions positive and negative.

Gray says, “United States government officials come to Roy and tell him that his father, whom he thought was long deceased, is alive and out at the edge of the solar system. Roy has got to communicate with him. They have to find him because he might be doing something horrifying, committing potential acts of terrorism in the rings of Neptune. They want to use Roy to lure him out of silence.”

“You can imagine what that must be like for Roy. For 16 years you’ve thought your father was dead and all of a sudden, he might be alive and out there doing something destructive.”

To arrive at The Lima Project, Roy must first travel from Earth to the Moon via commercial shuttle and then transfer to a remote base to meet the Cepheus, the spacecraft that will take him first to Mars. There, he will attempt to contact his father via a secure direct laser link, and, if successful, then on to The Lima.





Accompanying Roy on his journey is Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), a retired SpaceCom astronaut and one of his father’s oldest friends. Pruitt tells Roy, who he’d previously met when Roy was just a kid, that his last conversation with Clifford, many years earlier, had not been pleasant; Clifford became angry when Pruitt told him he was leaving SpaceCom.

Their flight to The Moon is uneventful. The Moon has become a series of highly developed outposts colonized by people from various countries from Earth, who, as on Earth, quarrel over resources. However, the areas in between these outposts are as lawless as the Wild West. On their way to the Cepheus, they’re attacked by lunar pirates and renegades.

“Unfortunately,” says Gray, “if you look at the history of human endeavor, our species can’t seem to get past ideological squabbles. So we have a Moon that’s filled with pirates because of the valuable natural resources there along with potential hostages they can hold for ransom. This is a future that has both problems and promise.”

Their military escort is killed and Pruitt is seriously hurt in the attack. Unable to continue on, Pruitt passes on to Roy a highly-classified video from SpaceCom revealing top secret intelligence about The Lima Project. After being away in space for so long without any discoveries, the scientists had become disillusioned. Half the crew wanted to return to Earth, but Clifford, would have none of it. As each faction tried to wrestle control of the ship, some kind of meltdown occurred with the anti-matter that powered The Project, releasing electromagnetic pulses which caused the explosions and threatened the entire stability of the solar system with already drastic effects on The Moon and Mars.

Having lost his mind, Clifford executed the dissenters for mutiny, and since then has been hiding out in space. From the videotape, Roy realizes that the real goal of his mission is to quietly coax his father out of the darkness, so that the government can assassinate him and destroy The Lima Project without the public knowing.

Aboard the Cepheus with a crew of four, Roy is annoyed when the Captain, Lawrence Tanner (Donnie Kershawarz), insists on responding to an SOS signal from a nearby Norwegian biomedical and animal research ship, The Vesta. Roy reluctantly agrees to accompany Tanner onboard The Vesta, where they encounter no signs of human life but an enraged research baboon in zero-gravity that attacks and kills Tanner. Roy manages to eradicate the beast and make it back to the Cepheus.

Approaching Mars, Roy has to take over the controls when they experience a loss of power during landing and Tanner’s second, Lt. Donald Stanford, (Loren Dean) freezes up. Upon arrival, Roy is met by Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the Superintendent of the American Section on Mars, before he’s quickly escorted to the secure laser link to contact The Lima Project. Roy’s first attempt at reaching his father, reading a statement prepared by officials, is unsuccessful, but after delivering an unscripted informal message, he’s informed that he will not be continuing on the mission because he’s too close to the subject and poses too much of a psychological risk. They will send the Cepheus crew instead.

Frustrated and angry, Roy turns to Helen, who confesses that, like him, she too was orphaned by The Lima Project, that her parents were among the scientists murdered by Clifford when they wanted to return to Earth. She tells him that the Cepheus is being loaded with nuclear munitions in order to assassinate Clifford and destroy The Lima. Knowing that it’s Roy’s destiny to complete his journey, Helen leads him to an underground lake where he can gain entry to the Cepheus. Making it aboard just in time, Roy must face off with the crew who have been ordered to terminate him. Following a zero-gravity fight to the death, Roy continues on to Neptune alone--a trip of 79 days, 4 hours and 8 minutes.
Anxious to confront his father, Roy is no longer the emotionally repressed, unsociable man he was when he began his mission. He’s had enough of his solitary existence in space. He’s ready to try exploring human connections on Earth. Says Gray, “There’s a new passage in his life that’s taking hold.”

The inspiration for Clifford came from not only Conrad but Melville

Gray says, “I’m a big fan of Moby Dick, and I always felt that McBride was sort of an Ahab figure. That he had become obsessed with his ‘white whale’ of trying to find all the cute little aliens that were going to bail us out and provide us with answers.”

Gross explains, “Roy’s father, Clifford, wanted to be the first person to discover meaningful life outside of our planet and years and years have gone by and most of the people in the Lima project had become disillusioned thinking that there’s no signs of life.

“But Clifford is a vain man, and he’s determined, he’s not going to give up. He’s going to stay there even after the last member of his team is dead and is going to keep looking for life outside of Earth.

“He clearly doesn’t care about anything on Earth. He doesn’t care about the lives of his own fellow scientists aboard the Lima project nor anything else.”
Roy’s meeting Helen Lantos, who’s spent her entire life on Mars in an underground dwelling, represents a turning point for him.

Gross explains, “She is sort of a flip side of him. She represents somebody who has also been orphaned by people on the Lima project. She was orphaned on Mars and left there at a young age when her parents enlisted to go on Clifford McBride’s expedition. And she had a lot of hurt and anger about that, but unlike Roy, she didn’t really bury it. She’s been dealing with it and living with it throughout every day of her life and Roy sees that in her.”

Gray says, “She’s concerned for the other people there. Nobody tells her anything. Roy is the only person that’s ever been honest with her. She, in turn, is actually honest with him. I mean, he doesn't have many of those people in his life.

“But there is this bond between them, and although it’s not romantic, that’s what leads him to acts of desperation, and it’s what leads her to help him board The Cepheus to Neptune, even though it will undoubtedly cost her her job and perhaps worse.”

To provide insight and information to Roy about Clifford’s real nature and intentions, Gray and Gross created the character of Col. Pruitt, an old friend of Clifford’s who’s assigned to accompany him on his mission. Pruitt knows what has happened to Roy’s father and what SpaceCom really intends to do, and represents the kind of human connection Roy has learned to live without.

Says Gray about Pruitt, “He can’t go on the journey with Roy. You want him to go, you want him to be a kind of protector for Roy in some way, but he’s weak, he can’t do it. “

AD ASTRA had a long gestation period, not unusual for a James Gray project. Sometime between the director’s productions Two Lovers (2008) and The Immigrant (2012), Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross began talking about writing a film set in outer space. They worked on the script off-an-on over the years, then Rodrigo Teixeira’s RT Features stepped into develop the script.

In 2016, once Brad Pitt agreed to both star and produce, things moved quickly. His production company Plan B’s deal with New Regency provided financing and distribution through Twentieth Century Fox, with Bona Film Group co-financing with distribution rights in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. The film began production in August 2017.


Kulturexpress  ISSN 1862-1996


September 12, 2019