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/Co-Producer/Co-Writer 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."
GENESIS OF AD ASTRA
Director/Producer/Writer James Gray recalls his initial inspiration for the
film came when he was reading about Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi,
known as the architect of the Nuclear Age, who believed there was a 90 percent
chance that the southwestern part of the United States would be destroyed when
they split the atom for the first time.
"They weren't completely sure that the chain reaction wouldn't keep
continuing," explains Gray. "I found that extremely alarming and I thought, how
would that be if you had nothing to lose and you were in deep space? There's no
end to what experiments you might be willing to undergo or to perform.
"Then I started thinking about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the
movie Apocalypse Now. The idea came from there. It was Heart of Darkness and an
attempt to embrace the imagery and the mood of the Apollo and Mercury missions.
Gray's writing partner on AD ASTRA was Ethan Gross, his fellow classmate at USC
film school and a creative collaborator on many of his films.
Explains Gross, "The idea was to have a character on a transformative
journey. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey which has the Homeric Odyssey sort of imbued
within it. And Apocalypse Now, which obviously adheres to Joseph Campbell's
Monomyth, The Hero's Journey.
Gray says, "There have been so many great films made in the science fiction
genre, but how many of them are there that move you? I wanted to do something
that was the opposite of most space travel movies that offer a somewhat positive
view which results in meeting aliens, intelligent life that are benevolent or at
least interesting enough to involve us. I tried to do the opposite of that and
say, what if there's nothing? What if there's a kind of emptiness out there that
we can't even grapple with?
"I was anxious to explore the fact that as human beings, we're not really meant
to be in space. We're not designed to be floating around 250 miles outside the
atmosphere. We're not built for that, and we're never going to be built for
that. And that is going to have a cost."
Recalls Gray, "I'd read this quote of Arthur C. Clarke (who wrote 2001),
"Either we're not alone in the universe, or we are, and both are equally
terrifying." And I thought, well, I've never seen a movie about us being alone.
So, I thought combining that with this person out there doing experiments, which
are very hazardous and that's sort of the way the story began to take shape, and
who they would send to try and negotiate with that guy, maybe it's a father/son
story, that's very mythic, and that's kind of how it began to come together in
Gray, who considers AD ASTRA more science-future-fact says, "I thought that
this idea of space travel is both beautiful and horrifying at the same time. I'm
hugely in favor of space exploration and missions to Mars. But sometimes
exploration is also a means of escape. I hope people understand that at some
point it is incumbent on us to both cherish exploration and to cherish the
Earth. The Earth and the human connection are worth preserving at all costs."
Gross says, "This movie isn't the future, it's a future. This story is not
necessarily the future we think is going to happen, it's not a predictive movie.
It's just a film about what could happen if space exploration continued and we
populated the Moon and Mars and beyond.
"This movie is almost an extension of the '60s and '70s space technology, as
if it had progressed, jumped into the future without most of the things that I
think most of today's science fiction movies are made of."
Gray allows that he tends to view progress in a mostly optimistic way and is
resistant to making films that present a dystopian future in which everything is
terrible. Neither does he want to make a movie that says in the future
everything will be incredible and great.
"I actually think it will be more or less like we live now," he says "but
with a few more gadgets.
"We did a lot of research to make it as believable and scientifically
accurate as possible. But we always let the story be the main impetus to drive
They drew from their own experiences in creating their protagonist, Roy.
Says Gray, "I viewed Roy as an extension of practically everybody I know,
including myself, who is headed somewhere, but not exactly sure where. Roy is
thinking he knows what he wanted and even got a little of it, but there's
something seriously lacking. There's a hole that needs to be filled inside and
he can't verbalize it yet."
'So, the whole point of the movie is, how to fill that hole. It's really
about his solitude, about how alone he is, about how he has all this information
he can't communicate to these other people, about how he doesn't know them, and
about how that's how everybody wants it. The more connection there is, the more
risk there is, the more risk to the mission, the more risk there is to him
personally. And so, he meets these other people, but doesn't care about their
Explains Gross, "Roy feels fully alive when he's up on top of the Earth's
atmosphere, when he's away, when he's exploring. That's when he feels alive. And
he has a relationship with this woman, Eve, who cares about him and he seemed to
care about her but he's got something, a block in him, that makes him push her
"And it's caused by his father--his father's abandoning him years ago led to
his inability to have intimacy in his life, just like his father."
Gray says, "So he's not just alone, but a loner. Someone who, in a way,
prefers it. At least it in the first half of the movie, and has to deal with his
own issues, and actually, if you can't express things to people, if you have to
keep things a secret, that's a huge cause of anxiety, not being able to reveal
yourself to anyone or anything."
All through his assignment, Roy is monitored, and not only for his vitals.
Says Gray, "The idea was to chart his psychological state, and let's be
honest, in such a circumstance, there's this potential catastrophe, there's this
struggle to get to know who your father was, and of course, all this is against
the back drop of having to leave the Earth, having to leave terra firma. So,
that's a whole lot for a person to try to absorb, and I think he kind of breaks
a little bit.
The risk to his psychological state was even greater than his physical
Gross adds, "Along the way, Roy realizes that he's sort of turning into his
father, and he has to stop that. He doesn't want to be his father-- somebody
that escapes his humanity. And he finally is determined to return to Earth and
become a father and a caring, connected human being, a man who is not afraid of
intimacy with other people."
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
"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
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
The film began production in August 2017.
Gray was "very pleasantly surprised" when Brad Pitt agreed to play Roy
Recalls Gray, "Several times over the years Brad Pitt and I had tried to work
together on a film but between scheduling and timing, it never happened. I was
absolutely thrilled when he was able to commit to this shooting schedule.
Pitt says, "I've always loved James' filmmaking. It comes from a deep
knowledge of the history of film. There's always a classic element to his
storytelling, very elegant, and really, really points towards the greats.
"Our first conversations were about what is connection, especially for a man.
And what if we're dealing with a human being where connecting with others is not
necessarily in his skillset. He's quite capable, you know, on a tower and in
outer space when it gets dangerous. But when it becomes intimate, he's
Pitt continues, "We see Roy at this point in his life where this is no longer
working for him, and he's becoming aware of it. And that is set against finding
out that his father may still be alive. And so for James and I, it was really a
discussion of vulnerability. What is vulnerability? What is strength in a man?
Where does strength really come from? And out conclusion, what we were striving
for, is that our strength comes from actually being vulnerable.
"True confidence comes from we as individuals being able to acknowledge our
foibles, our shortcomings, our insecurities, and instead of hiding or trying to
cover that to actually be very open. And I've certainly found that in life that
a great peace and I will say, strength, comes from that very thing, which is
antithetical to certainly how my Dad would've grown up.
"These were these early discussions between James Gray and I, and what I
found really compelling about what he was after with this piece," Pitt explains.
Gray says, "Brad notices everything. He is so perceptive and a great friend
to the director, not just because he's a producer as in this case, but he's an
incredibly helpful actor. He's not simply interested in his role; he's concerned
with the entire story.
"He's an interesting figure," he continues, "because he is a movie star with
movie star looks and charisma, but there's an ambivalence to him about that
status. He is an excellent and immensely talented actor; very subtle, wonderful
at taking any directions you might give him and then expanding them into
something else. There's an effortlessness to what he's doing, like Jimmy Stewart
or Spencer Tracy. They almost look like they're not acting. But the acting is
incredible, you just don't see the machinery.
"I'm not saying it's effortless for him," laughs Gray, "I'm saying it looks that
way to us and that is really very, very rewarding for a director.
"Working with Brad has been spectacular. He's a brilliantly perceptive and
absolutely fabulous actor. He is so generous emotionally, with his time, it's
been a real treat."
Of AD ASTRA, Pitt says, "It's a film I think that has its roots in '70's
films, as James' vernacular seems to be born from. Meaning that it's
contemplative. It unfolds. And we have big moments of action and spectacle that
on the big screen is pretty jaw-dropping."
To portray Roy's revered, enigmatic father, Clifford, the filmmakers cast
Academy Award-winner Tommy Lee Jones.
Says Jones, "I love science fiction, and I thought this story and this
screenplay were really cool."
Jones describes his character as "a great astronaut, an explorer, who becomes
a dangerous man. A lost man."
Says Gray, "Tommy Lee Jones is about as intense a person as you can get in a
movie and a legend. A force, he's explosive. So much danger. You put the camera
on him, and he's incredibly frightening.
"And Tommy Lee is about an interior process, about the work, and your
direction to him is, by necessity, very simple, very on point, the adjustments
are very on point, and then he looks at you for a beat, and goes, 'All right,
let's try it.'
"And then, he'll do a take, and it'll have your adjustment, it'll be
beautiful, and he's extremely prepared and precise, and he will do exactly what
you ask, and he will do exactly what he thinks is right, too, in the take. And,
like I said, his inner life is very present on screen. You feel a real darkness
on screen in a beautiful way. He's fantastic."
Pitt says, "Tommy Lee Jones was perfect to play Clifford because of his
weight, his gravitas. He's known for being highly intelligent, highly capable,
and it just fit. It's seering. He's a master. Absolute master. He leaves an
indelible mark on a film."
Says Jones, "I liked working with James and Brad. It was a great deal of fun, a
terrific adventure. A happy adventure."
For the character of Helen Lantos, the filmmakers cast Academy Award-nominee
Ruth Negga, who had co-starred with Brad Pitt in World War Z. She was delighted
to reunite with them and eager to work with Gray, who believed Ruth would bring
exactly the right qualities to Helen to really ground the film while serving as
a catalyst to encourage a more empathetic, compassionate Roy.
Says Negga, "My part is quite condensed and small. James wanted Helen to be
very much a root of the human experience, even though she doesn't appear very
much in the film."
Gray explains "For Helen, a woman born and raised on Mars, you needed an
emotionality - a connectedness. I had seen Ruth in Loving and thought she was
terrific, and here she was just extraordinary, just an unbelievable depth, an
interesting, wonderful actress."
One of the screen's most respected and admired veteran actors, Donald
Sutherland, portrays Col. Pruitt. Like Negga's, his is a relatively brief, but
crucial role, and Sutherland was enthusiastic to join Pitt and Gray for
"something that is truly worth seeing and worth thinking about after you've seen
it. If you can make a film that makes you think, that's grand," Sutherland.
Says Gray, "Donald is a brilliant actor. Like Tommy Lee, he's very prepared,
but Donald's different because rather than it being primarily an interior
process, Donald likes to work with a lot of outside stimuli.
"He wants your input, he wants a lot of dialogue, he wants a kind of very open
atmosphere on set."
Pitt says, "It was a real pleasure for me to be able to work with the great
Donald Sutherland. He's been a part of so many of my favorite films. And so to
be able to have this experience, this exchange, was pretty monumental for me.
He's incredibly giving."
About working with Gray, Sutherland says, "James was lovely. He kind of lets
you just do it hoping that you will find your way and then he will give you a
little twitch, a nudge, until he gets what he wants. He's so smart, and it's
such a delight to work with him, to have the opportunity to please his desire,
his vision, his ambition. I've not worked with anyone quite like him before. It
Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings, Armageddon) appears as Roy's former
partner, Eve, shown primarily in flashbacks.
Rounding out the cast, the filmmakers chose Donnie Keshawarz ("Forever,"
"Damages"), Loren Dean (The Mule, "Gray's Anatomy"), Kimberly Elise (Death Wish,
Hellbent), ("The Good Fight" "The Blacklist: Redemption") and Bobby Nish ("Sons
of Anarchy," "Southland") for the roles of The Cepheus' crew members Captain
Lawrence Tanner, Lt. Donald Stanford, navigational specialist and geologist
Lorraine Deavers and medic Franklin Yoshida, respectively.
One doesn't make an authentic science-fact-fiction film without some real
data from the experts. For that, the filmmakers turned to NASA, along with other
Retired astronaut Garrett Reisman, who flew two Space shuttle missions to the
International Space Station (2008, 2010), was one of Gray's early fountains of
space travel information. Although he was present during production only for
those scenes and areas where his knowledge and expertise were specifically
required, he also spent time with Gray during the script writing process.
"A lot of us now are looking at maybe making a sustainable human presence on
another planet in our solar system, and specifically the red planet, and
thinking about all the wonderful utopia that it might be," he states. "And I
think that we have to consider, what if it turns out that it's not a utopia.
What if it's a dystopia?
"And what if we can break the bonds of gravity and with our rockets and that
advanced technology transport humanity to another planet, but we take our human
failings along with us? What if it doesn't turn out well? James explores that
with this movie."
Another resource was Aerospace Engineer Robert Yowell, a 30-year veteran of the
Space program, beginning in 1989 as an engineer with NASA.
"James wanted as much realism as possible on this film," says Yowell. "I read
the script and pointed out some suggestions. What he was looking for in terms of
realism was the physics. For instance, could you fire a gun on the Moon? The
answer is yes, a standard gun will work in space; a bullet has its own oxidizer.
Another question was, can you talk to somebody on Neptune from Earth in
real-time? Unfortunately, you can't. As far as we know, the speed of light is
the speed of light, so you've got a considerable delay in terms of hours.
"What would blood look like in zero gravity? What would a dead person look
like in space? These are things that are macabre to think about, but someday
someone is going to have to deal with those eventualities. And yes, the way
those things will look is physics.
"He also had questions about nuclear and gamma ray radiation, neutron
radiation, matter and anti-matter. Our conversations were always very
interesting and his questions well thought out."
Says Gray, "The entire group at Lockheed Martin as well has been very helpful.
I've asked them every question known to man."
When the director was deep in the middle of pre-production, he hosted an
"We invited astronauts and several experts from NASA, JPL and SpaceX, among
other firms. It was a spectacular exchange of ideas and insight into where they
think things are going and where they have been. Sometimes you have to look
backwards in order to look forward. It was very instructional to me."
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