Sure, Brad Pitt saving the galaxy from space vibrations is good, but what about Pitt fighting the crushing despair of the endless void? How fun is that?
An unofficial sequel to Space Cowboys, James Gray’s Ad Astra represents the newest incarnation of the waxing/waning trend of interstellar travel as metaphor for mankind’s internal search for meaning – a far cry from the rubber-suited aliens of the 20th century.
Naturally, that’s no big surprise from an auteur whose personal brand is interpersonal relationships with a dash of daddy issues, but it taps into a current, deepened fascination with what’s out there and whether it has sharp teeth.
Here are 6 options to double feature with Ad Astra that will make you, finally, jealous of Brad Pitt.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
We’ve wanted to lift off for centuries. The first sci-fi film made it look easy. All you need is a bullet-shaped ship and the will to fight off hyper-active moon people with your umbrella.
Georges Méliès’ still-stunning blend of ancient and cutting edge art wasn’t about mankind facing itself. The threat was external. Although there’s definitely a message here about adventuring with caution, humility, and respect. If travelers landed on earth’s face like they owned the place, we would have a big problem, too. So maybe it’s impossible to escape existential metaphor even when space battles come into play.
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)
This cult film was the first of its type to hit theaters after Apollo 11 “conquered” the moon. Reality outpacing fiction must have made this kind of cosmic swashbuckling seem absurdly dated even back then. Fortunately, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is still a lot of silly fun.
Basically, we discover an Earth-like planet sharing our orbit (yes, it’s possible) directly across the sun from us. Obviously no shenanigans going on there, so we send a team that winds up…back on earth. Or do they? Why is everything backward? Why are people driving on the wrong side the road? You will not be shocked by the answer, but you should grab some popcorn for it anyway.
Airlock, Or How to Say Goodbye in Space (2007)
On the other side of the sun from mid-century camp, this short (you can watch it right up there!) starring Michael Sheen and Steven Waddington explores the potential last moments alive by astronauts facing an oxygen shortage. The dialogue is crisp and humane, and the underlying weight of it all – the powerlessness, the unendurable waiting – draws out the mundane terror that space really offers. Physically, we’re not meant to be out there.
But if you go, don’t forget your laughing gas. Also, the stinger at the end of this lovely story of imminent death is an eye-opener.
The Quartermass Xperiment (1955)
You know the story. Three men go to space, one comes back, and…something else comes with him?
I didn’t mean for this list to be so British sci-fi heavy, but here we are. Val Guest’s take on the famous radio serials that imagined space before we ever traveled there is a gorgeous Venn diagram of outward fears and inward nihilism. “The Creeping Unknown” (which was the alternate US title) is such a perfect name both for the grotesque mutation that plagues the fair people of earth and the lonely gut-level feeling of meaninglessness in the face of vast infinity that plagues the fair people of earth.
When we look at the entirety of space, how can we feel small without feeling like nothing?
Coherence is evidence that you don’t have to travel to space for it to ruin your life. The plot involves eight dear friends reuniting for a dinner party the night a comet passes by. The electricity in the neighborhood fails except for one house, and what they find in that house alters each person’s concept of self.
Where Ad Astra is a big budget, star-fueled adventure into the furthest reaches of our solar system (and the deepest innards of Brad Pitt), Coherence is an indie through and through. Shoe string budget, technical limitations, and a strong existential slap to the face.
Field of Dreams (1989)
It’s impossible not to see Ad Astra as the story of Brad Pitt flying to Neptune for a catch with dad. His co-pilot on the journey: the nagging fear that he’s repeating his father’s abusive mistakes.
In striking parallel, the Kevin Costner-starring story of a man who demolishes his cornfield to build a baseball diamond is about a mad-seeming, near-impossible quest to recapture someone long thought dead. Instead of things exploding in space, two men toss a ball back and forth. Maybe this is Heaven.
The ideal double feature for Ad Astra is either a full bore rocket ride into the wilderness of space, a thorough investigation of what makes a human being, or a blend of the two.
Fermi be damned, our long history with star-gazing cinema positions the great silence as our natural counterpart. We, tiny bipedal mammals. It, the unending void punctuated by unimaginably powerful explosions. In most movies, we find something horrible lurking out there ready to eat us, imprison us, or hitch a ride on us back to earth where the real buffet begins. But what’s worse? Learning that a monstrous foe is hiding on the other side of the air lock, or that we’re all alone?
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