The startling plausibility of Ad Astra
For the first 93 days of director James Gray's life, the moon was a distant and impossible dream. Then, some four odd months after he was born, and some 238,900 odd miles away, a small step among the stars changed life on Earth forever.
In hindsight, there is something cosmically fitting about Gray sharing his birth year with the lunar landing. The director of The Immigrant and Lost City of Z had initially set out to make his newest film, Ad Astra, "the most realistic depiction of space travel that's been put in a movie," a lofty ambition he cringes at now. But although Gray had to take some artistic liberties in the end, Ad Astra, out Friday, remains a faithful and earnest portrait of the possibilities of human space exploration — both how it shrinks the universe as we learn more about the cosmos, and diminishes man by remaining inscrutable despite all our efforts.
Here's a look at what Ad Astra gets right about space, and what it gets wrong.
Space Command, do you read me?
In Ad Astra, outer space is the new Wild West. Nations war over the moon's resources while pellet-blaster-equipped pirates threaten anyone who travels outside of the designated safe zones. The U.S. military's Space Command, meanwhile, tries to keep things under control.
Although all that might sound far-fetched, the militarization of space is nothing new. The U.S. Air Force Space Command was founded during the throes of the Cold War in 1982, with the intention of overseeing the American military's off-planet activities. But just because it's not the Cold War anymore doesn't mean America has left its intergalactic military ambitions on the landing pad; while Gray was working on Ad Astra, President Trump actually announced the establishment of a newly-independent "Space Command."
Gray, for one, wasn't amused by his prescience. "It's idiotic," he told CNET. "Unfortunately, [Ad Astra's Space Command] has come completely true, even the same name. Which is really depressing."
About that Applebee's on the moon
In the future, the moon will have an Applebee's, Subway, Hudson News, and DHL, and be serviced by Virgin America shuttle flights where a blanket will run you $125 — at least if you believe the vision in Ad Astra. But while we might still be a few years away from full-blown lunar tourism, there is definitely growing commercial interest in the big rock in the sky, which serves as the blueprint for the capitalist bonanza depicted in Ad Astra.
It's a little bit more complicated than just sticking an Applebee's on the rim of Tycho tomorrow, though. Several years ago, Reuters reported that the Federal Aviation Administration had started looking into how U.S. companies might stake out a claim on the moon — a tricky question, since a 1967 treaty signed by over 100 countries, including the U.S., said that no nation is allowed to hold sovereign claim over any part of the moon.
A possible loophole exists, though: America didn't sign a later 1979 Moon Treaty, which forbids private ownership on the moon. There could be a future for riblets in space, after all.
The spaceships aren't "cool" — that's the whole point
I have some bad news: It turns out we probably won't be flying tie fighters around outer space anytime in the near future. The shuttles depicted in Ad Astra are cramped, utilitarian, and really rather prosaic. That's the whole point.
"We tried to stick to what was plausible, we'll say," Gray said in an interview with Wil Santiago, an interplanetary spacecraft engineer at Lockheed Martin. "Probably powered by some form of solar power, solar panels, and cramped spaces ... not a lot of nod toward aesthetics. Sometimes when you see movies, there are things designers put on spacecrafts just to be cool. We tried to avoid all of that."
Production designer Kevin Thompson additionally told Variety, "We wanted to be able to walk into the cockpit and tell you what each little thing down to the stickers meant — we wanted to make every detail right ... There's clutter, but there's logic behind the madness."
The color out of space
The first thing I googled after leaving Ad Astra was "are there sunsets on the moon?" My question arose during one of the most visually-stunning sequences of the film, when Brad Pitt's character drives straight through the lunar terminator into the dark side of the moon — literally. There is no twilight zone between the light and dark hemispheres at all.
It turns out that not having an atmosphere has its downsides! The colors of Earth's sunsets and sunrises come from light scattering through our atmosphere, meaning a gradual shift from day to night and back doesn't happen on the moon. Additionally, that explains why even during the day the sky remains dark on the moon: "Earth's atmosphere ... makes our sky look blue in the daytime," writes EarthSky.org. "From the moon, the sky always looks black, even during the lunar day when the sun is shining in the moon's sky."
Gray wanted to shoot on location as often as possible to make Ad Astra look real, but he could hardly take Brad Pitt to the moon. To ensure everything looked exactly right anyway, Gray and his team relied on photographs taken in space. "You know, [Stanley] Kubrick, when he did 2001, that doesn't look anything like the lunar surface," Gray observed to CNN. "He got it quite wrong. Now that's okay, he got virtually everything else right. We had the advantage of having the actual photographs. So the movie's not as good, but at least I have that on Mr. Kubrick."
But it's more than just that. Variety explains how Gray's team managed to get the effect of lunar light and color just right:
[Cinematographer Hoyte] Van Hoytema shot in the Mojave Desert using ... one regular camera and one shooting infrared. The infrared camera "brings in pure black skies and very bright overexposed highlights that turn the desert ground into a white and high-contrast look that's similar to the moon," he says. VFX later combined the shots and extracted color information to blend them. [Variety]
Even the use of the Mojave Desert was carefully calculated — "the Mojave's inhospitable, sun-scorched environment presents scientists with ... locations that are similar to what explorers would find on the moon or Mars," NASA writes of the desert landscape.
Is there life on Mars?
Ad Astra might be set in the near future, but its lens is ancient, drawing on mythic and Biblical source material like The Odyssey and the Old Testament, as well as on philosophical questions about if we are alone in the universe. That eternal search for the Other is at the heart of Ad Astra, with the possibility of there being nothing else out there driving some to insanity.
Gray, for one, is at peace with the notion. "I don't think there's anything out there," he confessed to CNN. "If there is, it's far; so far we'll never get there, or we can't communicate with it. Now if we are by ourselves, is that a bad thing? Some people think it is. My own view is it's not so bad."
Science and math, though, disagree with his certainty.
In space, no one can see you cry
Of course, not every detail in Ad Astra is exactly correct; Gray later said he was trying to achieve something more "plausible" than strictly "realistic." In fact, at least one major moment in the movie has no scientific accuracy at all — but it still works perfectly.
Toward the end of the film, Brad Pitt cries during a particularly raw and personal scene. After filming it, Pitt pleaded with Gray to fix his tears in post, Indiewire reports: "Pitt told Gray that the very-real tear should be edited in post to bubble off his face, rather than run down his cheek. (Think Sandra Bullock's tearful, no-gravity soliloquy in Gravity.)"
Gray refused. "I said 'sorry, I'm keeping it,'" the director recalled. "The acting's too good, buddy."
Sometimes it takes breaking the rules to create the most authentic moment of all.