Space is eerie. Its darkness, quietness and coldness stand in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the green and blue planet we call home. That is perhaps why space makes an interesting subject matter for exploration in movies. Its vastness and darkness complemented by its uncanny stillness and silence produce an ideal backdrop for portraying the loneliness, diminutiveness and loss of a sense of meaning we humans have felt since time immemorial.

This is why 2001: A Space Odyssey feels so metaphysical, why Alien is so claustrophobic, and Solaris, the original one, is so profound and mysterious. Now comes Ad Astra - Latin for “to the stars” - one of the best movies about outer space to have come out in recent memory. Calmly, noiselessly and meticulously, the film explores our solar system, which also becomes a metaphor for the mental and emotional state of its protagonist.

Brad Pitt plays an astronaut. He is unlike most of the fictional spacemen and women we have been introduced to recently. He is not running from anything as Sandra Bullock’s character was in Gravity. He is not trying to find anything out in space like Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.

Roy has long stopped feeling anything. Like outer space, he is indecipherable, even to himself. He does not know who he is and why he is like that, and whenever he is outside the Earth’s atmosphere, he finds a certain peace of mind, perhaps because he finds himself in his element, perhaps because there is rarely anyone else that stands counterweight to him.

The film takes place in the “near future”. Humankind has traveled well past Mars to Uranus and Neptune. There has even been an expedition to Pluto, which had unfortunately ended in disaster. This expedition was led by Roy’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), and he and his crew have not been heard from ever since. They have long been declared dead.

But after power surges that take the lives of tens of thousands of people here on Earth and continue to threaten human survival as a whole, it is revealed to Roy that the incidents have been traced to a ship his father was commanding. After all of these years, Clifford may be alive. Roy is given a mission to contact his father and plead with him to stop the power surges emanating from his ship. With human survival hanging in the balance, Roy travels deep into our solar system in an adventure that reveals a great deal about his father, his own feelings of isolation and our place within the universe.

Roy is the second most interesting character Pitt has played this year after Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time. Both characters are distant, rarely speak and show few facial expressions. But while Cliff is a great deal more playful and resigned to his fate, Roy is only holding back until he can get some answers about himself. The latter is much more conflicted and uncertain. Although he has been looking for something his entire life, when he finally gets the chance to take that journey, he goes through it with such emotional restraint, it is actually very touching.

But the brilliance of the movie is in James Gray’s ability to create an analogy between an excursion deeper into the solar system and Roy’s mental state. This is the closest Hollywood has gotten to remaking Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, a great deal closer in emotional and intellectual complexity than the adaptation of the Russian masterpiece by Steven Soderbergh.

There is a dreamlike quality to the movie. The cinematography is coarse, with muted colours. The dialogue is few and far apart in the movie, but in its place lies a good deal of internal monologue. The camera is held steady even in moments where there would seem to be chaos and confusion, matching the sense of calm the protagonist continues to experience throughout the movie.

I admit that the film can be boring at times. There are long moments where nothing seems to happen. But the film is meant for introspection more than anything else. It is an exploration into the soul (whatever this means) of a man, which is not always full of thrills and action as the likes of Gravity make it look.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 28,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1013]

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