Brad Pitt embarks on a voyage of discovery in sweeping new sci-fi drama Ad Astra – but not necessarily in the way we expect.
Director James Gray has likened the movie to Apocalypse Now in space, as Pitt's astronaut character Roy McBride sets off to Neptune in search of his missing father Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones).
The Apocalypse Now connection is furthered by Pitt's hushed narration in which he speculates on his own residual character, and his relationship with his absentee parent. And this is where the movie finds its heart.
In spite of the jaw-droppingly gorgeous space-scapes captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and the odd action scene like a rover chase across the surface of the moon, this is a story about one man coming to terms with himself.
In fact, space mirrors the coldness of Pitt's central figure, an introverted man who's proud of the fact that his pulse has never got above 80, even in the most dangerous of circumstances. In the story of Ad Astra, the void of space, it seems, is nothing compared to the emotional void that lurks with us all.
And there's a proud tradition of cerebral science-fiction movies that have further mined this intriguing subject...
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director Stanley Kubrick changed the face of space cinema forever with this challenging and cerebral study of mankind across the aeons. Utilising pioneering model work, clever use of forced perspective and an instantly iconic repertoire of classical music staples, Kubrick takes us from the dawn of early man to a memorably hallucinogenic conclusion that suggests an astonishing possible evolution from our species.
Although the movie throws conventional narrative and characters to the wind, it does find an anchor point in astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea). Towards the end of the movie, Bowman is sucked into the multi-coloured vortex known as the Star Gate, whose incandescent tones are reflected in his helmet (a shot that's mirrored in Ad Astra).
He is later confronted by older versions of himself, before he eventually transforms into the mysterious Star Child and the journey is complete. At this point, the movie reaches a sense of the sublime and profound, as an ordinary human being comes into contact with something beyond his comprehension, absorbing nothing less than his own future and the future of mankind in the process.
2. Solaris (1972)
If 2001: A Space Odyssey is a demanding watch, Solaris is even more so. This formidably austere Russian epic is a monolithic study of how the depths of space mirror the depths of our own souls, made because director Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to bring new insight and sophistication to a genre derided as crass.
Solaris has established itself as one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time, largely for how it keeps the human focus in the midst of a fantastical set-up. It's not hard to see the influence on Ad Astra as psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent on an interstellar voyage to examine a mysterious emotional crisis afflicting a space station. Along the way, he discovers more about himself than he'd care to admit.
The high-minded nature of its themes (adapted from the book of the same name by Stanislaw Lem), plus the soaring tones of Bach on the soundtrack, make Solaris a firm favourite for devotees of the genre. It was remade to mixed effect in 2002 by Steve Soderbergh, with George Clooney in the main role.
3. Alien 3 (1992)
Each of the first four Alien movies revolve around the emotional journey of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). First appearing in Ridley Scott's seminal sci-fi horror Alien in 1979, the character of Ripley opened up new boundaries of representation for women in science-fiction cinema. And she deepened in intrigue with 1986's Aliens, in which she grappled with the loss of her daughter, not to mention the inheritance of a surrogate child, and, especially, Alien 3.
David Fincher's famously troubled Alien threequel was so tough to make that not even the director likes to talk about it. However, there's no denying it's the most personal and emotional of all the films as far as Ripley is concerned, the character (now shaven-headed) grappling with the sum total of her life choices and her devastating relationship with the alien itself.
The conclusion to this twisted symbiotic partnership is, in spite of the film's flaws, quite possibly the most powerful moment in the saga, and a reminder that Ripley is the bedrock of the series. She was later resurrected to implausible effect in 1997's derided Alien: Resurrection.
4. Moon (2009)
What makes each of us unique? More to the point, what if our own sense of uniqueness was undercut by discovering we had a double? It's a popular theme in literature and cinema, and is explored particularly well in Duncan Jones's well-received debut feature, Moon.
The film hinges on a career-best performance from Sam Rockwell, holding the screen all on his own as an isolated astronaut on the moon. He maintains his job diligently, but his psyche fractures when he discovers an apparent clone of himself. What is going on, and how will he come to terms with his own nature?
Moon is a classic example of a film that, despite its futuristic setting and trappings, is very much interested in timeless human concerns. Rockwell's brilliant depiction of a steadily splintering mind helps ground a strange premise in something recognisable and emotional.
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5. Gravity (2013)
Director Alfonso Cuaron stormed the 2013 Oscars with this, his nail-biting rollercoaster ride set high above Earth's atmosphere. Utilising breathtaking long takes, convincing CGI and judicious application of immersive 3D, Cuaron pulls us into a battle for survival, as Sandra Bullock's astronaut Ryan struggles to get back home following the destruction of her space shuttle.
However, that's only half the story. As the film progresses, the usually light-hearted Bullock demonstrates impressive acting chops when we discover Ryan lost her young daughter to illness. Her voyage back to Earth becomes in essence a voyage to overcome her inner demons, and this is teased in a number of memorable sequences.
The most powerful of these is the moment where Ryan establishes a distant radio communication with an Inuit man, breaking down in tears as memories of her daughter are rekindled. The other side of this conversation formed the basis of breakaway short film Aningaaq, directed by Cuaron's son Jonas.
6. Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan doesn't do things by halves – after all, this is the film-maker who re-imagined Batman as a searing criminal epic closer to the tone of Michael Mann's classic thriller Heat. And his first voyage into space, Interstellar, was a commendably ambitious if somewhat over-zealous attempt at fusing both a fantastic voyage and intimate human emotion.
When farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is sent into deep space on a mission to save mankind, we're presented with all manner of jaw-dropping spectacle. This ranges from a seat-gripping docking sequence (imagine 2001 but sped up), and waves the size of mountains.
However, the story ultimately reveals itself as one of a father calling out for his estranged daughter. Amid the depths of space and black holes, time takes on a new meaning, and the relationship between Cooper and Murph (Mackenzie Foy as a kid; Jessica Chastain as an adult), whom he left behind on Earth, becomes both increasingly complicated and very moving.
7. The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott scored his first critical hit in years with The Martian, adapted from Andy Weir's book. The movie is a stripped down and relatively simple story of astronaut Mark Watney accidentally left behind on Mars, and his valiant attempts to escape back to Earth. At the same time, NASA learns of his survival and speculates on its best course of action, while Watney's crew members must decide whether to proceed back to Earth or return to the red planet.
That Watney is portrayed by a likeable, garrulous and resourceful Matt Damon is key to the appeal of the movie. Both a botanist and a technical wizard, Watney is never one to get fazed, and as his scheme to escape Mars draws ever closer to reality, we're more and more on his side. Despite its interstellar location, this is a story as old as time itself, in which one man is pushed to his limits and discovers more about himself in the process.
8. First Man (2018)
So it's not so much science fiction as science fact, but there's no denying First Man owes itself to a legacy of thoughtful space exploration movies. Director Damien Chazelle brings us a bracingly intimate study of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and depicts the dangers of his journey in all its rivet-pinging, hull-shattering glory.
In spite of the formidably cratered lunar surface, it's the visage of star Ryan Gosling that keeps us riveted during the pivotal landing sequence. In the film's view of events, we're presented with a taciturn individual whose desire to emotionally (and physically) push himself is directly related to the grief over his late daughter. The moment where he steps onto the moon's surface and finally releases her bracelet into zero gravity is a beautiful moment.